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How to lower cholesterol

A healthy diet and regular exercise can help to lower the level of cholesterol in your blood.

Adopting healthy habits, such as eating a healthy balanced diet and exercising, will also help to prevent your cholesterol levels from becoming high in the first place.

It's important to keep cholesterol in check because high cholesterol levels increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.

If you are concerned about your cholesterol, talk to your doctor.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners recommends that you regularly review any medications you are taking for high blood pressure or high cholesterol with your doctor or specialist. They will be able to assess, with you, the continuing benefits and risks. For further information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.

Fats and cholesterol

There are two main types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Eating foods that are high in saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels in the blood.

Foods that are high in saturated fat include:

  • meat pies
  • sausages and fatty cuts of meat
  • butter
  • lard
  • cream
  • hard cheese
  • cakes and biscuits
  • foods that contain coconut or palm oil.

Eating foods that contain unsaturated fat instead of saturated fat can actually help reduce cholesterol levels.

Try to replace foods containing saturated fats with foods that are high in unsaturated fats, such as:

  • oily fish (for example, mackerel and salmon)
  • nuts (for example, almonds and cashews)
  • seeds (for example, sunflower and pumpkin)
  • vegetable oils and spreads (for example, sunflower, olive, corn, walnut and rapeseed oils).

Trans fats can also raise cholesterol levels. These fats can be found naturally at low levels in some foods, such as animal products, including meat and dairy.

Artificial trans fats can be found in hydrogenated fat, so some processed foods such as biscuits and cakes will contain trans fats.

To help you have a healthy diet, try to cut down on foods that contain trans fats or saturated fats, and replace them with foods containing unsaturated fats.

You should also reduce the total amount of fat in your diet. Try microwaving, steaming, poaching, boiling or grilling instead of roasting or frying. Choose lean cuts of meat and go for low-fat varieties of dairy products and spreads (or eat just a small amount of full-fat varieties).

Foods containing cholesterol

Some foods contain cholesterol. This type of cholesterol is called 'dietary cholesterol'. Foods such as kidneys, eggs and prawns are higher in dietary cholesterol than other foods.

The cholesterol found in food has much less of an effect on the level of cholesterol in your blood than the saturated fat you eat. The Heart Foundation recommends, for all Australians, that six eggs a week can be included as part of a diet low in saturated fat.

If your doctor has advised you to change your diet to reduce the level of cholesterol in your blood, the most important thing to do is to cut down on saturated fat. It's also a good idea to increase your intake of fruit, vegetables and fibre.

Fibre and cholesterol

There are two different types of fibre: soluble fibre and insoluble fibre. Most foods contain a mixture of both.

Soluble fibre can be digested by your body - insoluble fibre cannot - and it may help reduce the amount of cholesterol in your blood.

Good sources of soluble fibre include:

  • oats
  • beans
  • peas
  • lentils
  • chickpeas
  • fruit and vegetables.

Try to include more of these foods in your diet. Aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day.

Cholesterol-lowering products

There is evidence that foods which contain certain added ingredients, such as plant sterols and stanols, can reduce levels of cholesterol in the blood. Plant sterols and stanols are found in nuts, seeds and legumes, vegetable oils, breads and cereals, and fruits and vegetables. You need to eat 2 to 3 grams a day of plant sterols and stanols to assist in reducing high cholesterol. Eating more is not harmful, but you won't get any additional benefits.

One way to boost your intake of plant sterols and stanols is to eat foods that have been enriched. In Australia, these enriched foods include some margarines, low-fat milks, low-fat yoghurts and breakfast cereals, lower fat cheese and processed cheese. People who do not have high cholesterol should not eat these products regularly, particularly children and pregnant or breastfeeding women.

If you do eat foods that are designed to lower cholesterol, read the label carefully to avoid eating too much.

Get active

An active lifestyle can also help to lower cholesterol levels. Activities range from walking and cycling to more vigorous exercise such as running and dancing.

Doing 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity on most days can improve your cholesterol levels.

Moderate-intensity aerobic activity means you work hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat.

One way to tell whether you are working at moderate intensity is if you can still talk but you cannot sing the words to a song.

Last reviewed: October 2016

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