In honor of National Cholesterol Awareness Month, let’s talk heart health. I found out I had high cholesterol at 12 and then, as a teen, watched both my grandparents fade from strokes and heart disease. If you don’t know your cholesterol levels, talk with your doctor to find out. If you want to lower them, but aren’t sure how, I can show you the path that worked for me.
About a year ago, I received a follow-up letter from my PCP after my physical. “Darn it, Melanie” she wrote. “Your cholesterol continues to go up.” I was called back for a consultation. Neither one of us wanted to put medication on the table for a 34-year-old. So I promised to change my lifestyle. My doc gave me some tips and handouts listing what I should and should not eat. Donuts weren’t on the “Should Eat” list. Sad news.
And then I stumbled out into the daylight with the biggest homework assignment of my life: lower my cholesterol levels in less than a year–or else.
After 20 years of managing my high cholesterol, I had slipped somewhere (probably it was the donuts) and landed in the danger zone.
It took a year of serious daily commitment–through vertigo, migraines, a move, and grad school. My levels still aren’t ideal. But I’m confident I can get them down even further. Here are the six steps I took to get this far:
1. Commit to 5 – 6 cardio workouts a week, at a minimum of 30 minutes each.
I was shamefully out of shape when I started this project last year. As I worked on changing my exercise habits, I realized I also needed to find activities that were affordable and enjoyable enough that I would do them every day. At my old gym, I fell in love with the elliptical machine. It didn’t bother my knees the way running does, but it didn’t terrify me like swimming. But when I had to move, I was at loose ends for a while. As a student, I couldn’t afford the high-end gyms in my new neighborhood. Finally, my fiancé and I went in together on a Wii Fit.
It makes working out into a video game, and when I need a more intense workout that gets me to my target heart rate, the “Free Run” feature allows me to jog in place for 20 minutes. I also jump rope for 30 minutes to my favorite TV shows. And now and then, I go for a 30-minute run. I had to work up to all this, but the Wii helped me do that.
2. Get in at least three servings of vegetables a day and two servings of fruit.
Juicing is popular right now, but it robs you of fiber–a key to lowering cholesterol. In fact, a major benefit of your fruits and veggies is just how much fiber they add to your diet. I like to get most of those servings in all at once with a smoothie. Drop a couple handfuls of greens into a blender, add a tablespoon of flax, a dribble of vanilla extract or honey, and then a cup of blueberries and a cup of peaches–or a cup of strawberries and a banana–and you’re just about set for the day!
3. Consume only whole grains from now on.
Like I said, fiber, fiber, fiber! No more white anything for us high-cholesterol folks. It’s brown rice, whole-wheat breads, oatmeal, whole-grain flours, and anything else that hasn’t been bleached or refined. Fiber goes through our blood vessels like a scrub brush and helps clear away some of that cholesterol build-up that hardens into plaque and can eventually become blood clots.
4. Cut it off at the source–limit saturated fats.
These make it easier for our bodies to produce cholesterol, something my body is already too efficient at. So butter, coconut milk, peanut butter, ice cream, cheese, anything fried or hydrogenated, and most meats are strictly limited. I use a vegan margarine designed to support low cholesterol diets, and since I’m anemic, I still have meat a few times a week–but only small portions of chicken, turkey, or low-cholesterol fish. Everything else I have less than once every couple months or not at all.
5. Reduce sugar intake.
I also learned from my readings that sugar facilitates cholesterol production, too. So I had to break my habit of three cookies each day. I didn’t go cold turkey, though. I simply cut one cookie every couple months. Eventually, I got down to zero daily sweets. If I have a cookie or cupcake now, it’s a planned reward.
6. Still, make sure to include favorite foods.
I also learned the hard way that being too strict doesn’t pay off. Weeks of flawless eating won’t help if they’re followed by weeks of hamburgers, milkshakes, and deep-fried prawns. You have to find the right balance between eating healthy and not feeling deprived. Inevitably, that balance will start off tilted toward less healthy. But as I gradually tried foods I was sure I’d dislike–like flax, kale, and blueberries–and discovered I did like them, it felt less and less like I was giving things up.
And, too, as I experienced the increased energy, mental clarity, and pain-free existence that comes from eating right and being active, those cookies gradually became less and less attractive. In fact, my favorite snack now is a smoothie or a glass of 1% chocolate milk. A year ago, I didn’t believe it was possible for me to enjoy a low-cholesterol lifestyle. Now, I love it.
A year ago, I learned I had let my health get out of hand. But I was determined to get back on track. This year when I had my physical, my doc was excited to see my cholesterol levels. She even typed into my printout right next to the numbers–my LDL down from 197 to 147: “So much better!!!!” I felt as proud as a first-grader awarded a gold star.
If you, too, struggle with high cholesterol or just want to get healthier, there are so many tools to help you. Your doctor is your number one ally. After that, it’s all about your own preferences and goals. I love tracking my progress, so I use a FitBook to record my workouts and plan rewards. For me, jumping rope, jogging, and playing the Wii Fit provide a great fitness foundation. For you, it might be breakdancing, biking, and basketball. And for lowering cholesterol through nutrition, I can’t recommend The Program or the DASH diet highly enough.
Please share your own tips for cholesterol-lowering, health-boosting lifestyle changes below!