6 Lifestyle Factors That Can Lead to High Cholesterol
As you age, your risk for a number of health conditions increases. This includes heart disease and stroke. A significant contributing factor and precursor for both of these issues is high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Both will worsen heart health, and they'll increase the likelihood of cardiovascular disease.
"The American Heart Association describes cholesterol as a 'waxy substance' that circulates in the blood, and we need it to build cells and make hormones, but too much of it can become a problem," says Dr. Sadi Raza, MD, a cardiologist in Dallas, Texas.
The liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs, so anything that comes from the diet is superfluous. That means the liver may ultimately be making more cholesterol than the body needs.
"Over time cholesterol starts to coat and collect in the walls of our arteries, and this leads to a condition called atherosclerosis, a narrowing of those arteries, which is a major cause of cardiovascular disease and stroke," Raza says.
A number of lifestyle factors and choices can help protect your heart and you help maintain higher levels of good cholesterol ("HDL" levels), while decreasing levels of bad cholesterol ("LDL" levels).
If you're worried about your cholesterol, or if you have family members with high cholesterol, diabetes, or other heart conditions, like heart disease or stroke, then you'll want to work to improve any habits or factors that can put you at a disadvantage.
These are the most common issues that can lead to increased cholesterol, so make sure to keep them on your radar.
1. Eating Too Much Saturated Fat
A high intake of saturated fats coupled with a low intake of plant foods (which can help usher out extra cholesterol in your body) will cause higher levels of cholesterol. Cut back on red meat intake, like beef and lamb, as well as other saturated fat-rich foods, like butter and coconut milk.
"The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats to less than six percent of our daily caloric intake and this can be achieved by limiting the intake of red meat or dairy products made from whole milk," Raza says.
In place of those unhealthy fats, you should aim to incorporate fats that can increase your good cholesterol, such as those found in avocado, fish, and nuts. Swap out unhealthy oils, like butter or cream, for those with good fats, like avocado oil. And choose foods with omega-3 fatty acids to increase heart health.
"Start eating more fruits, such as apples and oranges, and foods high in omega-3s, such as salmon and walnuts," Dr. Raza says.
2. Smoking and Boozing Often
If you smoke, quit smoking — period. If you're around smokers, try to limit your exposure as best as possible. And cut alcohol consumption to a point where it's moderate or not consumed at all.
"High alcohol consumption is associated with high blood cholesterol levels, and like coffee, daily alcohol intake can become a normal part of your routine quickly, especially if you use it to unwind or de-stress at the end of the day," says Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN.
"Intake at or above 'moderate' levels — one drink for women and two for men — actually increases stress in your body, increasing oxidation and impacting how cholesterol is metabolized," Jones says. Try to designate certain nights for drinking, or reduce the amount your pour in your glass each day.
Cigarette smoking can also raise LDL and lower HDL, as the toxins can disrupt lipid metabolism.
"While vaping may sound desirable, there are risks there, too, and a smoking cessation program is a better bet," Jones says. Many employers offer help through your health department, but you can also speak with your doctor about other options.
3. Leading a Sedentary Lifestyle
Staying active is about more than keeping your waist slender. Low activity levels are associated with high LDL and low HDL.
"When you aren't exercising, you use less of the fat that cholesterol is transporting, allowing it to build up, but just a few months of consistent exercise can show a significant change in your HDL levels especially," Jones says. Start small with a realistic exercise routine that you know you can stick with.
Regular fitness activity will protect your heart against coronary artery disease and help lower cholesterol. If you're sedentary, you are not protecting your heart health, and you may also find yourself more at risk for weight gain or obesity.
"It takes about three months of a sustained lifestyle adjustment track to start to see a reduction in cholesterol numbers," says Raza, who suggests a physical activity plan that incorporates at least 30 minutes of exercise five days a week.
4. Being Overweight
Those extra pounds may increase your risk of high cholesterol, as well as other heart conditions and diseases long-term.
"Lose weight, and stay on top of other conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, that can affect your cholesterol or increase your risk of cardiovascular disease," Raza says.
Losing even five to 10 percent of your weight can lead to an improvement in your cholesterol numbers — so go gradually and progress with ease, without the pressure of urgency. This helps you stay on track.
5. Consuming Too Much Added Sugar
A high-sugar diet actually impacts blood cholesterol more than dietary cholesterol.
"When excess added sugar is metabolized, it's more likely to convert to fat, thereby increasing cholesterol production for its transport," Jones says.
Try to limit your added sugar intake to the recommended 25 grams per day most days by increasing intake of whole plant foods and paying more attention to added sugars in the packaged foods you'll buy at the store.
Choose natural sources of sugar, and consume in moderation. Go with fruit for natural sweetness, for example.
Plus, a low intake of whole plant foods, like fruits and veggies, means a low intake of fiber and plant sterols, and soluble fiber in particular can bind to cholesterol in the digestive tract and excrete it.
"Plant sterols block the absorption of cholesterol," Jones says.
6. Getting Inadequate Sleep
Poor sleep isn't just a bad thing for your mood or your under-eye circles. Low-quality or lack of sleep can impact your heart health and cholesterol, too.
"Lack of sleep may even impact your blood cholesterol levels as it increases stress responses, which can disrupt normal nutrient metabolism," Jones says. If you have a hard time falling asleep, work on a nighttime routine that will help reduce anxiety.
"Try some tart cherry juice," Jones continues. Cherry juice can induce drowsiness. Or try journaling and nighttime affirmations, as activities.
"If time is your problem due to a hectic work schedule and family responsibilities, prioritize a little catch up with short naps and sleep in on the weekend if you can," Jones advises. It'll help you recover better."