Eat a Rainbow
"Colorful vegetables and fruits are where the majority of antioxidants, isoflavones, and other phytochemicals exist," says Dr. Linda Van Horn, a clinical nutrition epidemiologist at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. They have vast benefits for the heart, so aim for eight servings daily. Avocados, artichokes, and grapefruit may particularly benefit heart health. Many herbs and spices -- garlic, ginger, turmeric -- also have anti-inflammatory, heart-healthy benefits.
See recipes with these amazing spices.
Alcohol has been associated with higher HDL cholesterol levels -- "and red wine contributes antioxidants," Van Horn says. Limit yourself to a glass of wine a day, or grab a handful of grapes instead -- that way you get the soluble fiber, too. Green tea seems to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels and raise HDL levels; aim for at least a cup a day.
Get Your Fiber
Soluble fiber reduces the risk of heart disease by blocking cholesterol and fats from being absorbed through the wall of the intestines into the bloodstream. Increasing daily soluble fiber intake can reduce LDL cholesterol by 5 to 10 percent. Good bets include psyllium seeds, oatmeal, barley, citrus fruits, Brussels sprouts, and legumes like lima and kidney beans.
See our delicious cholesterol-fighting recipes.
Monounsaturated fats, such as olive and canola oils, rank among the heart-healthiest fats. Among the polyunsaturated fats, walnuts and almonds are good sources of healthy fats and seem to benefit cholesterol levels, as well. Additionally, aim for two servings of fish a week, especially fatty fish such as wild-caught salmon, mackerel, or herring, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids and may have anti-inflammatory and LDL-lowering properties.
It's just as important to avoid the wrong fats. Limiting red meat, poultry skin, and full-fat dairy products will lower the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you consume, helping to keep your LDL levels in check. And since trans fats, found in many processed and fried foods, can up your risk of heart disease even at low levels, avoid them altogether.
Limit Refined Carbs
High in calories and low in nutrients, refined carbohydrates can raise blood-sugar levels. Avoid sugary foods and favor whole grains over processed foods to help lower your risk of diabetes, your levels of triglycerides, and the inflammation in your body.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. For optimal health, keep your body mass index, or BMI, between 18.5 and 24.9. (Visit cdc.gov/bmi to find out yours.) Losing extra weight, even a few pounds, helps raise HDL levels and lower triglycerides and LDL. Combining healthful eating with increased physical activity is the most effective way to lose weight.
The current recommendation for exercising for overall health -- at least 60 minutes a day of moderate activity -- should also help you improve your HDL levels. Besides maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, regular exercise helps you maintain a healthy weight while lowering your blood sugar, blood pressure, triglycerides, inflammation, and stress levels.
If an hour a day sounds daunting, remember that any increase in physical activity can improve your health. In a recent study, a group of sedentary, obese postmenopausal women cut their risk of heart disease in half by walking 72 minutes a week. "You don't have to go to the gym; you don't need to break into a heavy sweat. What you need to do is to walk," says Dr. Elsa Grace Giardina.
Relax -- and Laugh
We know ongoing stress raises blood pressure, but it can also raise cholesterol levels -- both immediately after a stressful event and over the long term. "There's a direct link between stress and lipid abnormalities," says Dr. Mimi Guarneri. One British study found that those more susceptible to stress had increased levels of cholesterol. To improve the way your mind and body respond to stress, try exercise as well as relaxation techniques, such as meditation and yoga. For a really quick fix, watch a comedy. In one study, people who watched a funny movie had a 22 percent average increase in blood flow, while those who watched a stressful movie had an average decrease in blood flow of 35 percent.
Read our guide to a Relaxation Walk.
Supplements can play a role in lowering cholesterol, says Dr. Stephen Devries, but it's important to talk with your doctor before taking one. Special risks exist for anyone taking medication or undergoing surgery. Taking 1 gram or more of fish oil daily can lower your triglyceride levels, reduce inflammation, and act as a mild blood thinner. High doses of niacin, used only under physician supervision, can have dramatic effects on cholesterol levels. Plant sterols and stanols, which can help reduce LDL and total cholesterol but have little effect on HDL, are available in pill form or are often added to foods. As for red yeast rice, a natural statin, Devries says it may be "the most potent but least well-known of the over-the-counter products for lowering cholesterol." But he stresses the importance of talking to your doctor before considering it, as it can cause liver and muscle problems for some people.
Read the Supplement Dos and Don'ts.
Know Your Numbers
Most experts agree on the following levels for the general population; your doctor can help you interpret your numbers, taking any added risk factors into account.
Too high: above 240 mg/dL
Ideal: below 200 mg/dL
Too high: above 160 mg/dL
Ideal: below 100 mg/dL
Too low (women): below 50 mg/dL
Too low (men): below 40 mg/dL
Ideal: above 60 mg/dL
Too high: above 200 mg/dL
Ideal: below 150 mg/dL