With a family history of high cholesterol and hypertension, I’ve long been careful to track my blood pressure and cholesterol as part of an annual physical. But back in 2010, my total cholesterol suddenly spiked to 267, and my LDL (bad) cholesterol soared to 167, much higher than usual and well over “goal.”
My internist wanted to start me on statin medication — which every single adult in my family takes. But I’d read about statin side effects and decided to try to lower my cholesterol with a change in diet and exercise.
I’ve been able to manage and lower my cholesterol with what I call a lo-co lifestyle. It’s comprised of four key steps:
- lo-co eating
- daily exercise (which isn’t as onerous as it sounds)
- electronic tools that make managing food and daily exercise fun (well, at least interesting)
- testing and tracking progress to also increase the fun quotient
Now this approach isn’t necessarily right for everyone, and you definitely need talk to your doctor or cardiologist about how you should approach treatment. Even so, eating well, exercising, and tracking your levels is something everyone with high cholesterol can do.
1. Lo-co eating
I use the term “eating” rather than the more comprehensive term “diet” because diet implies sacrifice, and it just doesn’t have to be as sad as that.
When thinking about building a lo-co diet, I like to think in two categories: foods to add and foods to avoid. Not surprisingly, foods to add to a lo-co diet include lean proteins, fiber-rich foods, and heart-healthy fats. Foods to avoid include fast food, red meat and other foods made with animal fat, highly processed snacks, trans fats, and full-fat dairy.
Specifically, here’s how I approach lo-co eating:
I eat very little fast food. My beloved Shack Burger is now an indulgence.
The switch to soy creamer from half-and-half in my coffee has been easy.
Sadly, no more ice cream. I tried frozen yogurt, but it just doesn’t cut it for me. My new snack strategy is a bite or two (OK, really four) of a lush chocolate bar, followed by a bowl of home-popped popcorn. It’s delicious with a tiny dash of salt, and has the surprise benefit of fiber.
I also take Metamucil mixed with grapefruit juice in the morning for added fiber.
2. Lo-co exercise
For cardiovascular health and lowering cholesterol, the American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise (defined as a brisk walk or its equivalent) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. That translates into daily exercise.
Luckily, the daily exercise needed to lower cholesterol doesn’t mean having to hit the gym daily, which is good or I’d never achieve this goal. (Though I’d be thrilled to play tennis daily, I’d also be both bankrupt and injured.)
It turns out that a brisk 30- to 45-minute walk on days that I’m not playing tennis, jogging, or spinning, actually counts as exercise. I was skeptical — to me, walking doesn’t seem like exercise. But since it really does count, the daily exercise component vital to lowering cholesterol has been easier to meet than I expected.
3. Making eating well and exercising fun
Having to pay more attention to the food I eat and getting exercise daily seemed like it’d be challenging, but I’ve found electronic ways to make it interesting too.
The well-designed, easy-to-use, free app My Fitness Pal is a boon to keeping my lo-co lifestyle choices on track. It’s helped me in three big ways:
- First, the ability to easily upload recipes let’s me see the cholesterol and sodium levels in home-prepared meals.
- When fast food is the only option, it steers me to a healthier choice without much hardship.
- Finally, it’s the kicker in getting me to exercise daily — because if I don’t, I don’t have enough calories left at the end of the day for my beloved glass of wine!
Instead of whining “I don’t know what to cook for dinner,” I actively search out heart-healthy recipes that are both tasty and easy to make. It’s been fun to discover new cookbook authors, and I’ve amassed a horde of great recipes.
Tracking my physical activity on Apple Watch (many also love Fitbit) is surprisingly motivating.
4. Testing and tracking
Testing my cholesterol every six months and tracking my blood pressure (with results sent via Bluetooth to my phone, of course) is another key factor in lowering my cholesterol. Seeing lowered cholesterol numbers is in and of itself motivating. And because hypertension is a key cardiovascular risk that runs in my family, making sure my blood pressure doesn’t creep up is vital.
Am I successful all the time? Certainly not. And that leads to the bonus key to success: not to let lapses shake me into despair. There are more weeks than there should be when I’ve hit Shake Shack (sometimes more than once), and when I simply can’t resist the siren call of Ben & Jerry’s. It happens.
But rather than fall back into unhealthy habits, I let my lapse go and start lo-co’ing it again, with a brisk walk and a search for a fun new recipe to make for dinner.
Karen Swanson is a writer and editor with a strong desire to avoid cholesterol-lowering medication. She has written about cholesterol as a category expert at Answers.com, and her award-winning blog, golowcholesterol.com, focuses on how to live prescription-free, lo-co lifestyle. She lives with her husband and college-age son in Connecticut.