For people who do not have familial hypercholesterolemia (a genetic disorder in which the body produces too much cholesterol), high cholesterol is completely preventable. To a large degree, high cholesterol is considered a lifestyle disease. In other words, how healthfully you live your life determines whether or not you will get it. The same healthy habits that can lower your cholesterol can also prevent high cholesterol in the first place.

Not Smoking

Smoking cigarettes can have a negative impact on high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol—the good stuff that helps keep your arteries clear. Smoking also damages blood vessels and speeds up the hardening of the arteries. 

Maintaining a Healthy Weight

Being overweight or obese can raise “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Because it’s much harder to lose weight than maintain a healthy weight, controlling calories to avoid weight gain is optimal. Some experts believe weighing yourself every day is a good way to gauge whether you’re eating too much. If the scale starts climbing, you know it’s time to cut back on how much you’re eating. Extreme dieting can also slow down the metabolism and lead to weight gain. That’s why it’s better to eat a healthy and balanced diet. If you feed your body the nutrients it needs and avoid the junk it doesn’t, you are more likely to keep your weight and your cholesterol down.

Exercising Regularly

Getting 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, like brisk walking, most days of the week can help lower high triglycerides. Bumping up the intensity by climbing hills or stairs or by running can boost “good” HDL cholesterol.What’s more, exercising regularly can lower blood pressure and help overweight individuals lose weight, which can lead to lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol levels.

Eating a Healthy Diet

To keep your weight down and your heart healthy, you should avoid eating more calories than you burn each day. Extra calories are converted into triglycerides—a type of fat—in the blood. Consuming too many calories also leads to weight gain, which can elevate your cholesterol.

What you eat is just as important as how much you eat. When it comes to high cholesterol, saturated fat, trans fat, and refined carbohydrates are some of the biggest dietary culprits. Heart-healthy diets should be low in saturated fat, cholesterol, trans fat, sodium, and sugar. In fact the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends a so-called “TLC diet” (Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes)—a low-saturated fat and low-cholesterol eating plan.

Foods that contain high amounts of saturated fat include:

  • Red meat
  • Processed meats
  • Fried food
  • Butter
  • Hydrogenated vegetable oil
  • Many processed baked goods, such as cookies and cakes
  • Dairy products that aren’t low-fat.

You can limit the amount of cholesterol-boosting fat in your diet by swapping saturated fats for healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These kinds of fats can actually lower your cholesterol. Those foods include:

  • Olive oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Canola oil
  • Flaxseed
  • Fatty fish
  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

It’s also important to include plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes in your diet, because fiber-rich food plays a role in bringing down cholesterol. Limit or avoid foods that have added sugar, like juice drinks, soda, and packaged foods. Excess sugar can boost blood pressure and triglycerides and lower “good” HDL level.