In the last three months I’ve tweaked my lifestyle in a personal challenge to decrease my cholesterol. The results are in, and yow! Changing your lifestyle really can work. Here’s how I did it and how you can decrease your risk of coronary heart disease, even if you don’t have high cholesterol.
Given my healthy lifestyle, I’m pretty sure my high cholesterol is due to genetics (both my parents have high cholesterol). I’ve had high cholesterol since my twenties, varying between borderline high and high. It’s frustrating, given that I eat super clean and consistently strength train and move a lot in general. But I’m committed to staving off cholesterol-lowering drugs as long as I can with factors in my control.
Disclaimer: Work with your doctor about how to treat your cholesterol. You may need medication, and obviously I am not a doctor!
It’s possible that my March and May surgeries and subsequent four months of decreased activity and off-kilter eating habits caused my numbers to degenerate. So after the July test, I vowed to come back with better numbers in three months – it was ON!
Here’s the breakdown of my cholesterol for the last three months (see this for recommended ranges):
I’m most happy with my LDL improvement, because your risk of heart disease increases when your LDL increases. I also had a Carotid Intima-Media Thickness (CIMT) test done, which is an ultrasound measuring the thickness of the carotid artery. My results found that I have no plaque build up, and in fact, I’m five years younger than my actual age – yow again!
So What Changes Did I Make?
I made lifestyle tweaks since I already treat my body right. So if you’re not quite there yet with healthy habits, any of these tweaks will improve your health!
I eat a low-fat diet composed of mostly whole, natural foods. I’m already very knowledgeable about healthy eating; this is what I help my clients with too. But I had let certain things go… In all honesty, I had forgotten about my high cholesterol (carrot cake happened post-surgery – a lot). So I started making tweaks as I eased back into normalcy:
Reduced saturated fat. Saturated fat, in general, raises the level of cholesterol in your blood, even more so than dietary cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends only 13 grams of saturated fat per day in a 2,000-calorie diet; that’s about 120 calories . Keep in mind, too, that fat has more calories per gram than protein and carbs, so you have to eat less of it.
Saturated fat is found in fatty beef, lamb, pork, poultry with skin, butter, cheese, and other dairy products made with whole or reduced-fat (2%) milk. So how am I cutting down on saturated fat?
- Eat red meat only once per month
- Eat primarily egg whites instead of yolks
- Reduce cheeses to 1-2 times per week
- Cut out sweets and pastries completely, except for special occasions (also helps triglycerides)
- Increase soluble fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes in every meal
You’ll notice that these are pretty specific goals – they’re easier to stick to and easier to remember than broad goals.
Reduced alcohol intake. While some studies suggest that moderate amounts of alcohol can lower LDL or increase HDL, evidence shows that alcohol may also increase triglycerides. No more than 3-4 drinks per week for me instead of 6-7 (hey, I love my wine, ya know?).
True, in July I had only been back to the gym consistently for a few weeks since my surgeries. In the four months after my prophylactic mastectomy, I walked, hiked, and did light strength training. I had lost a lot of muscle and gained some body fat (about 3%).
Exercise plays a huge role in our health, particularly cardiovascular health. I had slacked off on cardio for sure, and it’s an ongoing challenge to get it in with my intense strength sessions.
But after the July test results, I added 1-2 days/week of high-intensity interval training for a few weeks. When I became more focused on muscle building in August, I turned the HIIT sessions into 10-minute finishers after my strength workouts. I also rode my bike and hiked on my off days. I was more motivated since I wanted to lose fat, too.
Getting Plant Sterols/Stanols
A previous doctor had suggested I take a plant sterol/stanol supplement to lower LDL but I had ignored her advice. Plant sterols/stanols are natural substances occurring in many grains, veggies, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that people with high cholesterol get 2 grams of sterols or stanols per day.
After the July recheck, I decided to play BIG with beating high cholesterol and give the supplement a try. But supplements like the one I’ve been taking (Cholestoff) may not absorb as well as whole foods, so I recommend talking to your doctor about whether you should take a supplement. Personally, I’ll probably stop taking it when I run out, as it’s pretty expensive and I eat a lot of those foods high in sterols/stanols.
I’m a huge proponent of food tracking, as I talked about in my Art of Food Tracking series. Tracking gives you a good idea into how much you’re eating and what you’re eating, whereas most people literally have no freaking clue. I tracked my saturated fat and cholesterol (though my doctor did not give me a particular number to shoot for) for several weeks and it was a valuable safeguard.
So that’s it – I’ve changed my cholesterol with lifestyle tweaks. I may need drugs someday, particularly if CIMT show plaque build up, but for now I’m managing it without. YES!
Are you up for the challenge of taking control of your health? What changes will you make for heart health?
This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.