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How to Improve Your Cholesterol and Cut Your Risk for Heart Disease

In today's hectic, grab-and-go world, it can be difficult to resist fast foods and processed meals. But paying more attention to what we eat and taking time to prepare more nutritious foods can help improve our health, our hearts -- and our lives -- tremendously.
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Laura Manning, MPH, RD, CDN
Clinical Nutrition Coordinator
Department of Gastroenterology, Faculty Practice Associates
The Mount Sinai Hospital

Do you know your cholesterol levels? If not, you should. Cholesterol, a waxy, fat-like substance found in our cells and certain foods, helps our bodies function, but excess amounts of it in the blood can build up and lead to clogged arteries, causing heart attack or stroke. According to the Centers for Disease Control, high LDL ("bad") cholesterol is a key risk factor for heart disease, the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States.

The good news is that many people can improve their cholesterol levels -- and lower their risk for heart disease -- by making simple (but not necessarily easy!) diet and lifestyle changes. Below are some tips to help you do just that.

1. See your primary care physician.
Your doctor can test your blood cholesterol levels and assess other risk factors for heart disease. Together, you can determine the best course of action to help you live a longer, healthier life. For some people, this may include taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.

2. Maintain a healthy weight.
The absolute best thing you can do if you have high cholesterol and are overweight is to lose the excess pounds. Many of the tips below can help, and you should also discuss a weight loss plan with your doctor.

3. Step up the exercise.
Try to fit both cardiovascular exercise (activity that raises your heart rate) and weight training into your schedule, but if you have time for only one, go with the cardio. Start with 30 minutes of cardio daily; if you need to, break it into 10-minute chunks throughout the day. Here are just a few ways to slip exercise into your routine:
• Wake up 30 minutes earlier to start your morning with a brisk walk.
• At the office, take the stairs instead of an elevator.
• Pack your lunch instead of waiting in line to buy it, and use the extra minutes to go for a walk.

4. If you smoke, stop.
A leading cause of heart disease, smoking is one of the worst things you can do, but also one of the most addictive. Your primary care physician can help by working with you to create a smoking cessation plan.

5. Change your dietary habits.
There's a lot of controversy today about what, exactly, in our diet affects the cholesterol levels in our blood. But experts do agree that following a Mediterranean-style diet can lower your risk for heart disease, as a large study has recently found. Here are some dietary tips to help you go "Mediterranean," improve your cholesterol levels and protect your heart:

Ditch processed foods and get back to basics, like fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Stick to whole grains for foods in the starch category. Brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat bread are just a few of the many whole-grain products available today.
Eat fatty fish, such as salmon or tuna, at least twice a week to get more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids into your diet. Vegetarians: Get your omega-3s from walnuts and flax seeds.
Cook with monounsaturated fats, like olive or canola oil, instead of butter.
Go nuts! Eating nuts, particularly walnuts, almonds, and peanuts, is beneficial for your cholesterol levels. Try replacing a meat protein with nut protein; for example, swap roast beef for peanut butter in your sandwich.
When cooking, make enough food to eat for three days in a row. Streamlining your time and efforts will make preparing healthy meals less overwhelming and help you resist buying prepared foods, which usually are made with more artery-clogging fats and sodium than you would use at home.
If you already drink alcohol, limit it to one drink a day if you are a woman, and no more than two if you are a man. Alcohol increases your HDL ("good") cholesterol; however, the American Heart Association cautions people NOT to start drinking alcohol if they do not already do so.
Encourage healthy eating at the office. Instead of baking cookies for your coworkers, bring in a fruit platter!
Bring your own food when traveling. Packing PBJ and an apple will help you avoid the beef jerky, burgers, and other unhealthy roadside temptations.
Educate yourself about healthy eating. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and American Heart Association websites offer a wealth of information, recipes, tips, and other resources.

In today's hectic, grab-and-go world, it can be difficult to resist fast foods and processed meals. But paying more attention to what we eat and taking time to prepare more nutritious foods can help improve our health, our hearts -- and our lives -- tremendously.