Be wary of these surprising factors.
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Cholesterol is necessary for a host of bodily functions. That's why it is OK to eat eggs yolks (the yolk contains cholesterol) and why you should strive to raise your HDL levels (the "good" kind of cholesterol). But excess cholesterol, especially LDL or the "bad" kind, can be worrisome for your heart health long-term.

"When there is excess cholesterol circulating in the blood, the sticky nature of the substance will start to cause it to bind together and begin blocking arteries," explains dietitian Trista Best, MS, RD.

This causes a decrease in blood flow and excess pressure on the heart as it works to pump blood throughout the body. In turn, this can lead to worsened heart health and put you at risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and yes, high cholesterol.

Diet is a big factor in your cholesterol levels, but it's not the only one contributing to your total cholesterol and risk of heart disease. You don't want to think you're in the clear with a healthy diet if you happen to have from other lifestyle choices that can hinder your heart's well-being and lead to a raise in cholesterol.

So, to avoid that big shock at your next doctor's visit, check in with your body and evaluate your lifestyle routine to make sure you're not susceptible to any of these surprising, but common, causes of increased blood cholesterol.

Girl pushing shopping cart full of meat
Credit: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

1. Your diet is high in saturated fat and low in fiber.

Diet is a primary cause of high cholesterol; what you eat either can fuel you and protect your heart, or it can damage that all-important muscle.

And the cholesterol concern is not just from eating foods containing cholesterol, like eggs and shrimp. Foods that contain saturated and trans fats can be problematic, too, but knowing what those foods are can be hard to pinpoint, especially when reviewing packaged food labels that look like gibberish.

"Dietary cholesterol alone isn't the main reason cholesterol rises due to diet, but other factors like saturated and trans fat raise cholesterol as well," Best says. Trans fat is found in many snack foods made with hydrogenated oils, like chips and cookies, and saturated fat is found in red meat, coconut oil and milk, butter, and other kinds of baked goods.

"To avoid dietary causes of high cholesterol, it is best to eat a diet low in saturated fat and high in fiber, as fiber will help to remove cholesterol circulating in the blood," Best says.

Stick with foods that contain unsaturated fats, like olive or avocado, and bulk up on fibrous foods like beans and legumes, whole grains, green veggies, fruit with edible skins like apples and berries, and root veggies like sweet potatoes, for example. Plus, drink lots of water. This helps your body process the fiber and stay regular.

2. You're not eating enough fruits and vegetables.

Fruits and vegetables have antioxidants and fiber that can help improve cholesterol levels. A great way to increase your plant food intake is by following the Mediterranean Diet, advises Dr. Brynna Connor, MD, healthcare ambassador at NorthWestPharmacy.com. That diet has been shown to help decrease total cholesterol levels and improve over-all heart health.

The Mediterranean Diet resembles the foods listed above: unsaturated oils and other healthy fats from sources like nut and seeds; fatty fish like salmon; whole grains; vegetables and fruits. It also deemphasizes the consumption of red meat and dairy products and suggests they be consumed in moderate amounts instead. Plus, the diet calls on you to avoid sugar and processed foods, and keep alcohol consumption in moderation.

"This kind of diet and lifestyle is better for your heart and cholesterol levels," Dr. Connors says.

When choosing animal meat, you should prioritize fatty fish, eggs, dairy, and leaner sources of meat, like turkey or chicken breast, as opposed to fat-heavy, greasy meats, like fast-food burgers or fried chicken wings.

You can surely sneak in those veggies through your daily meals through egg dishes, like omelets or frittatas, soups, smoothies, dips (blend up some greens in your hummus), or even dessert, such as a zucchini loaf that you can pair with plain Greek yogurt and a drizzle of honey.

The Mediterranean Diet typically has healthier desserts and sweets. They emphasize fruit that may be baked or served with rich Greek yogurt, for example.

3. It runs in your family.

Some people are predisposed to high cholesterol due to their genetics. That is unfortunate, but it an be managed with the right diet and lifestyle changes designed to protect the heart.

"I encourage you to talk with your physician about your family history in order to determine the proper testing recommended for you from a preventative standpoint regarding your cholesterol and your overall health," Dr. Connors says.

Why is there a genetic component? "Something in their genetic makeup causes their body to not process the substance as efficiently as others, leading to high numbers regardless of diet and activity," Best explains.

She continues, "To combat hereditary high cholesterol, it is best to continue eating a heart healthy diet, get in regular physical activity, and avoid other environmental causes of high cholesterol like smoking." And keep routine doctor appointments on your calendar.

4. You're a couch potato.

Do you keep ditching your workouts? Or stay sedentary throughout the day? You're at greater risk of heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke and even just simple weight gain. Exercise truthfully improves your overall well-being.

In fact, movement aids in promoting good cholesterol and lowering bad cholesterol to maintain an ideal ratio within the body.

"Physical activity is one of the only ways to raise your good cholesterol or HDL, which helps to lower your bad cholesterol or LDL," Best explains.

Moving your body most days of the week is key, whether you choose walking, lower-intensity exercises like aerobics, or HIIT, running, boxing, or cycling for a higher-intensity style. Make sure to include cardio and weights in a weekly routine, aiming for a few days each week for a workout. And don't skip out on daily movement of some form — a leisurely stroll will do on those off days.

5. You're a smoker.

Put down that cig; it's a nasty habit for your heart health.

"Smoking cigarettes causes damage to the walls of your arteries, and this damage makes them more susceptible to accumulating cholesterol and forming blockages," Best says.

"Smoking is thought to also lower the good cholesterol, which will naturally increase bad cholesterol," Best adds.

To avoid this sneaky cause of high cholesterol, it is best to stop smoking, period. Of course, this can take time and a lot of work, especially if you're used to blowing through a pack or more a day.

"There are many resources through public health efforts and through your primary care physician to help with smoking cessation," Best says. Feel free to inquire, and figure out what works best for you.

6. You're overweight.

Extra pounds are worrisome for your heart health.

"The exact reasons are unknown, but having a BMI greater than 30 puts most adults at a higher risk for high cholesterol," Best says.

To avoid this side effect, it's time to adopt some dietary and lifestyle interventions, like beginning a heart-healthy diet, with those good fats, fibrous foods, lean proteins, and rich produce sources. Now is also a great time to begin a consistent fitness program that can help alleviate inflammation and ultimately lead to weight loss and weight maintenance, in time.

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