If your healthcare provider has ever given you a lab order for a lipid panel, you’ve likely heard of low-density lipoprotein (LDL). High-density lipoprotein (HDL) and LDL are types of cholesterol that your healthcare provider measures to understand your heart health.

HDL and LDL are commonly referred to as “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol,” respectively. If your LDL levels have ever come back too high, or are approaching levels that concern your healthcare provider, you may be curious about LDL and what you can do to lower it.

What is cholesterol?

The American Heart Association describes cholesterol as a waxy substance our body needs to build cells, and make vitamins and other hormones. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need, but when you consume foods that come from animals (ex: meat, poultry, dairy) those can play a role in increasing your cholesterol to unhealthy levels.

You’ll hear the terms “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol” mentioned because while your body needs cholesterol to function, too much can lead to health problems. While good cholesterol can decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke, high levels of bad cholesterol can cause heart problems.

What is bad cholesterol?

LDL is called the “bad” cholesterol and high levels lead to increased risk of heart disease and stroke.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), when LDL levels get too high, plaque forms in arteries, which can reduce blood flow to the heart. When there is reduced blood flow to your heart, the chance of chest pain or heart attack increases.

How to lower LDL

The CDC lists five lifestyle factors that play a role in high cholesterol: diet, weight, physical activity, smoking, and alcohol.

Diet

When it comes to lowering LDL, one of the first things to look at is your diet. If you’re eating a diet high in saturated or trans-fat, that can contribute to high cholesterol. Try to focus on the following to reduce your LDL levels:

  • Foods naturally high in fiber (ex: beans, apples, dried fruit)
  • Lean meats
  • Seafood
  • Whole grains
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Unsaturated fats (ex: avocados, nuts, olive oil)

Weight

Maintaining a healthy weight is important for lowering cholesterol because overweight and obesity can lead to an increase in LDL. Additionally, having excess body fat makes it more challenging for the body to get rid of LDLs. To make steps towards a healthy weight:

  • Talk to your healthcare provider about a healthy weight range for you.
  • Create a diet and fitness plan with your primary healthcare provider, dietician, or nutritionist.

Physical activity

Increased physical activity is associated with many health benefits including weight control and lower cholesterol levels. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults do 150-300 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. That equates to roughly 3-5 hours per week or about 30-40 minutes every day. Increasing physical activity can mean hitting the gym more frequently, or incorporating some basic changes into your daily routines:

  • Walk as much as possible
  • Choose stairs over elevators or escalators
  • Take a walk when you’re done with work
  • Do more chores or DIY projects around the house
  • Start a new active hobby like golf or tennis
  • Get the whole family involved
  • Take the dog for an extra (or longer) walk every day

For even more ideas, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has compiled a list of activities.

Smoking

While smoking and vaping can cause health problems related to the lungs, these addictions can also increase cholesterol. Smoking damages and speeds up the hardening of arteries, which contributes to high blood pressure and cholesterol.

  • If you currently smoke, talking to your healthcare provider is a great place to start to get more information on quitting.
  • The CDC also has many resources to help quit smoking.

Alcohol

Drinking too much alcohol can increase cholesterol and triglycerides (another type of fat in the blood). Additionally, when consuming alcohol, judgment becomes impaired and it’s common to reach for high-fat foods like pizza or tacos which can have negative effects on cholesterol.

  • If you’re going to consume alcohol, make sure you’re practicing moderation. CDC guidance is maximum one drink daily for women, and two drinks daily for men.
  • As the “sober curious” trend increases, you may find it easier to avoid alcohol by going to bars that don’t serve alcohol or participating in challenges like Dry January.

How to monitor cholesterol levels

A lipid panel is commonly ordered by healthcare providers during an annual physical. If you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol, your provider may have you get bloodwork done more frequently. With lifestyle changes and potential medication usage, you can work towards lowering your LDL. Blood tests will help you understand and track your progress along the way.

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