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How to Reduce Cholesterol: 9 Smart Ways

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Medically approved by Dr Earim Chaudry
Chief Medical Officer
iconLast updated 20th April 2021
In 30 seconds…

How to reduce cholesterol? Start with the best-known strategies. Exercise regularly, first and foremost. That means about 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic physical activity in which you get a bit sweaty and breathless.

Next, turn your attention to your diet. Cut saturated fats – found in fatty meats, dairy products, and cakes and biscuits – as much as you can and avoid hydrogenated fats, too. Other fats, such as unsaturated fats, can stay – but it’s best to reduce cooking with fat. Meanwhile, a balanced diet, with high levels of fibre, is a great cholesterol-cutting strategy.

Finally, statins aside, there is little evidence that any dietary supplements sold with the explicit purpose of reducing cholesterol work. However, some vitamins and nutrients – such as omega-3 and Vitamin B (or Niacin) – may help.

Cholesterol: A Condition with No Symptoms?

According to one government estimate, as many as 6 in 10 adults in the UK have high cholesterol. Yet, although it can have life-threatening consequences, cholesterol itself doesn’t have any symptoms. So, many of us don’t know that we have it.

A symptomless condition hardly seems worth the fuss. However, with the increased risk of both heart disease and heart attacks posed by cholesterol, it’s important to find out if you’re in that 60%.

A lipid profile – essentially a cholesterol test – can help you find out your cholesterol levels. Once you’ve got the answer, you may need to bring those levels down. And this can feel like a pretty intimidating task.

So, how to reduce cholesterol? In this article, we’ve got some tips to help you do it. From regular exercise to a diet with plenty of fibre, there are several manageable ways to bring down cholesterol.

What is Cholesterol?

First, let’s take a little step back. Before you make massive changes, it’s worth knowing what exactly cholesterol is – particularly when you may have heard that some cholesterol is good for you.

What is cholesterol? In general terms, it’s a type of fatty substance that is produced by your liver to help your body build cells and produce vitamins and hormones. So, it’s pretty important. But when you have too much of it, it can start to be a bit of a problem. And that happens mainly because of excessive quantities of saturated fats in our diets.

While cholesterol is useful, it can’t move around our bodies alone. Instead, it is packaged up – along with another fat called triglycerides – into what are known as lipoproteins. These are crucial because when we talk about and measure cholesterol, we’re talking about these.

The ‘Two Types’ of Cholesterol

As you may know, there are two types of lipoproteins: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDLs are the bad cholesterol and HDLs the good.

Why? There is more actual cholesterol in LDL, as these lipoproteins are taking cholesterol to the tissues around your body where they’re needed. HDL, meanwhile, contains less cholesterol – and its function is to go around the body picking up cholesterol and enabling you to get rid of it.

That’s why HDL is described as ‘good’ cholesterol, because it removes excess cholesterol from your body. Boost that and you should lower your cholesterol levels overall.

How to Reduce Cholesterol? Here are 9 Ways

We mentioned above that cholesterol is mainly produced in the liver. However, while only some of it (about 20%) comes directly from our diet, our diet affects the amount of cholesterol our livers produce. And the more saturated fat in your diet, the more cholesterol you’ll have.

That’s why cutting down saturated fats is an essential part of any strategy to reduce cholesterol. But that’s not all you can do.

Here are 9 lifestyle changes that can bring your level of LDL cholesterol down.

1. Cut Saturated Fats

It’s the number one strategy to reduce cholesterol: cut down on the saturated fats that you eat. According to the NHS, men shouldn’t eat more than 30g of saturated fats a day. However, studies suggest that most people in the UK eat too much.

Saturated fats come in red meats and fatty meats, in dairy products, and processed foods like cakes and biscuits. Reducing the amount of these in your diet will be your first step in reducing cholesterol.

2. Exercise Regularly

Physical activity lowers cholesterol, while potentially boosting your ‘good’ HDL cholesterol too. However, it is not necessarily enough to just walk to the shops. To feel the benefit, you should be doing moderate aerobic activity for a recommended 150 minutes a week (that’s half an hour 5 times a week).

Moderate activity means that you get a little breathless, your heart rate increases, and you start to sweat.

3. Avoid Trans and Hydrogenated Fats

Trans fats aren’t very common in naturally occurring foods, nor are they particularly common in UK diets. However, hydrogenated fats – a type of trans fat produced by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils – are still used in processed foods to boost their shelf life.

These should be avoided if at all possible. Like saturated fats, they increase your bad cholesterol.

4. Find Other Fat Sources

To lower cholesterol, focus more on so-called unsaturated fats. Where saturated fats are ‘saturated’ with hydrogen, unsaturated fats have a different chemical structure that means that they tend to be liquid at room temperature. These – both monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats – lower your LDL levels while boosting HDL.

Unlike saturated fats, unsaturated fats are found in avocados and olive oil, fatty fish such as mackerel and salmon, and in nuts and seeds.

5. Try Different Cooking Methods

While there are different types of fat that you will get in your diet, it is important to lower your overall levels of fat too. The American Heart Association, for example, suggests that fats should only make up 20-35% of your diet.

Rather than frying or roasting your meals in oil, butter, or margarine, try cooking without fat. Steaming, boiling, or grilling your food can reduce the total amount of fat in your diet – and lower your cholesterol.

6. Up Your Fibre Intake

While it is not known exactly how, fibre appears to be very useful in reducing your cholesterol. And, on top of that, it can reduce your blood pressure and your risk of heart disease, too.

Lentils, chickpeas, whole grains, legumes, as well as fruit and vegetables and nuts and seeds, are all full of fibre – and are indispensable for a balanced healthy diet. Adults should get 30g of fibre in their diet a day.

7. Be Cautious of Cholesterol-Busting Supplements

There are lots of dietary supplements out there. However, not all of them do what they claim to. Before you give your money to the first thing that offers lower cholesterol levels, try to understand how it will contribute to heart health and lower LDL. That means finding out what is actually in them.

Statins are the only medicine that doctors prescribe to people with high cholesterol. You should only obtain these through a healthcare professional, however.

8. Try Omega-3 and Niacin

Two nutrients that you should look out for in particular, though, are omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin B, or Niacin. The latter has been shown promise to increase HDL by as much as 30%, but you shouldn’t overdo it. Too much Niacin and you may increase your risk of diabetes and liver damage.

Omega-3 fats, though, are safe and are seemingly pretty effective in reducing triglycerides and total cholesterol levels. Although the supplements can give you a bit of bad breath.

9. Quit Smoking and Cut Down Alcohol

Finally, smoking and drinking alcohol increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis, the condition in which your blood vessels become hardened due to the build-up of plaque.

While smoking does not increase LDL directly, it does make your blood cholesterol stickier – meaning that it is more likely to clog up your arteries – and reduces the amount of HDL. While the evidence surrounding alcohol’s relation to cholesterol is not so clear-cut, excessive drinking increases your triglycerides – which can have a knock-on effect on your cholesterol levels.

Key Takeaways

So, how to reduce cholesterol? There are many ways, but regular exercise and reducing the amount of saturated fat in your diet are probably the most significant.

Otherwise, upping your fibre and your omega-3 intake can help. And, as with every other health condition, stopping smoking and heavy drinking are important steps too.

References
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Public health matters – High cholesterol: beating the build-up during Cholesterol Month: https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2015/10/12/high-cholesterol-beating-the-build-up-during-cholesterol-month/

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Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation – Report on diet finds most people in the UK are consuming almost 3 times the recommended daily sugar intake: https://www.drwf.org.uk/news-and-events/news/report-diet-finds-most-people-uk-are-consuming-almost-3-times-recommended-daily

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nhs.uk – How to eat less saturated fat: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/eat-less-saturated-fat/

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heartuk.org.uk – Exercise can improve your health in many ways: https://www.heartuk.org.uk/healthy-living/exercise

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American Heart Association – The Facts on Fats 50 Years of American Heart Association Dietary Fats Recommendations: https://www.heart.org/-/media/files/healthy-living/company-collaboration/inap/fats-white-paper-ucm_475005.pdf

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Purnima Gunness, Michael John Gidley (2010). Mechanisms underlying the cholesterol-lowering properties of soluble dietary fibre polysaccharides: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21776465/

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A Aleixandre, M Miguel (2016). Dietary fiber and blood pressure control: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26923351/ 

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Preethi Mani and Anand Rohatgi (2015). Niacin Therapy, HDL Cholesterol, and Cardiovascular Disease: Is the HDL Hypothesis Defunct?: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4829575/

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J. Chris Bradberry, PharmD and Daniel E. Hilleman, PharmD (2013). Overview of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Therapies: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3875260/

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While we've ensured that everything you read on the Health Centre is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

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