Cholesterol: A Comprehensive Guide for Managing Your Health

Written by: Christine VanDoren, Nutritionist

Fact checked by: Dr. Pravesh Saini

Cholesterol: A Comprehensive Guide for Managing Your Health

Cholesterol plays a big role in the body’s overall health. Many people’s cholesterol levels are not ideal, but by taking control through healthy habits, they can make a change for the better. 

Cholesterol functions in the body to ensure normal physiological processes. However, excess amounts could lead to negative health outcomes. 

Cholesterol levels affect the cardiovascular system. Therefore, keeping your cholesterol levels in check is a great way to promote a healthy heart.

This piece examines cholesterol and why you should pay a lot more attention to it. You will learn about the factors that could play a role in health issues and how to maintain healthy cholesterol levels


What is cholesterol, and why does it matter? 

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute describes cholesterol as a "waxy, fat-like substance" needed in optimal amounts for healthy functioning of the body. It is a sterol compound that makes up most body tissues, especially the brain and spinal cord. 

Although the body makes the cholesterol it needs to synthesize hormones, vitamin D, and digestive bile acids through the liver, foods such as milk, cheese, meat, and eggs also contribute to the amount of cholesterol circulating in the body.

Moreover, compounds called lipoproteins aid in transporting cholesterol around the body. They are a combination of lipids (fats) and proteins. There are two types of lipoprotein that transport cholesterol:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): Cholesterol carried by LDL is considered the "bad" cholesterol.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL): Cholesterol carried by HDL is called "good" cholesterol, since it ensures that cholesterol is brought back to the liver for removal after circulation in the body. HDL also has antioxidant effects that could benefit the body. 

Triglycerides are another type of fat in the blood. They make up the majority of the body's fat. The triglyceride content in the body comes from fatty foods like oils and butter. 

The body also stores extra calories as triglycerides to use them when energy levels are low

Knowing key facts about cholesterol and lipids will help you foster a lifestyle that supports healthy levels of LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides in your body. 


Risk factors and common causes of cholesterol 

Unhealthy dietary choices

Avoiding foods with excess saturated and trans fats can positively impact LDL levels and prevent certain health issues. Such foods to avoid include the following:

  • Full-fat dairy products like butter, whole milk, and cream.
  • Red meat like pork, beef, and lamb.
  • Palm oil and coconut oil.
  • Fried foods and processed meat. 

Genetic predisposition 

Genetic predisposition can have some influence on an individual’s health. It is important that you speak with your family about their health history so you can be aware and prepared for the future. 

Being knowledgeable about your genetics is also great for helping you understand what healthy habits you can work on in order to prevent health issues from occurring. It is also recommended that you undergo regular cholesterol screening and treatment as needed. 

Smoking and drinking alcohol 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, avoiding smoking can promote healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels. If smoking is a habit of yours, consider reaching out for support from family, friends, or a support group to make the journey of quitting easier. 

Minimizing or avoiding alcohol consumption can also help you maintain healthy cholesterol levels.

Not maintaining a healthy weight

The maintenance of a healthy weight can improve your chances of not having issues with your cholesterol levels. Being at a healthy weight can also help with various other physical factors, as well as confidence and energy levels


Benefits and health advantages to having the right levels of cholesterol

Healthy heart

Having a normal amount of HDL means your body can properly regulate artery health by keeping your blood flowing.

Protects your brain health

While cholesterol levels are most often associated with heart health, it is actually the brain that has the highest level of cholesterol in the body — roughly 20%.

Maintaining the right levels of cholesterol can help support long-term brain health.


Lifestyle changes to maintain healthy cholesterol

Healthy dietary choices 

One important aspect of managing cholesterol levels is to follow a heart-healthy diet, which includes foods high in fiber, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Foods that are rich in fiber can help maintain healthy LDL cholesterol. Fiber is also known for improving overall digestive health and helping with weight management due to its satiating effects.

Another key step is to decrease the intake of unhealthy fats. Foods high in saturated fats, such as red meat, fatty dairy products, and certain processed foods, can affect LDL cholesterol levels. Alternatively, foods like poultry, fish, and plant-based proteins can help you maintain optimal cholesterol levels.

Further, incorporating healthy fats into your diet can contribute to heart health. Unsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocados, and nuts have been shown to affect HDL cholesterol levels. 

Regular physical exercise 

Another essential component of managing cholesterol is regular physical exercise. Exercise promotes HDL cholesterol, ensuring that you can keep your LDL cholesterol low. At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activities, such as brisk walking, swimming, or cycling, is a recommended weekly goal.

Weight training workouts at least two days a week can also help manage cholesterol levels. Increasing your muscle mass is an effective way to promote a healthy metabolism and better cholesterol management. 

It’s important to find a workout plan that caters to your fitness and comfort levels in order to encourage long-term commitment to your goals. 

Quit smoking 

Smoking poses a known danger to health due to its detrimental effects on HDL cholesterol levels and the damage it causes to blood vessels by promoting the accumulation of cholesterol. Taking the step of quitting smoking is crucial for managing cholesterol and maintaining a healthy heart.

When someone quits smoking, their body experiences some physiological changes, and the process of repairing blood vessels commences. The sooner one quits smoking, the quicker they can reap these benefits. Hence, try to seek support from smoking cessation programs and healthcare professionals.

Lower alcohol intake

While some studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption might have benefits, excessive intake can negatively impact cholesterol levels and overall well-being. For those who choose to consume alcohol, it is important to do it in moderation.

The recommendation for alcohol intake stands at one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

However, it is essential to remember that these recommendations may not apply to everyone. So, it is best to seek advice from a healthcare professional regarding how alcohol consumption can affect your cholesterol levels.


Alternative therapies and supplements for cholesterol

Some individuals explore alternative therapies, naturally sourced products, and supplements to address cholesterol concerns without conventional approaches. 

Alternative therapies include:

Dietary Changes

  • Soluble Fiber: An increase in dietary soluble fiber can help maintain healthy LDL cholesterol levels. You can achieve this through foods such as oats, barley, legumes, and fruits.
  • Plant Sterols and Stanols: Often found in plant-based foods or fortified products, these naturally occurring compounds can maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: A positive impact on cholesterol can be seen through fatty fish like salmon, walnuts, and flaxseeds due to their content of omega-3 fatty acids.

Herbal Supplements

  • Red yeast rice: Made from rice that has been fermented with red yeast, this supplement has a naturally occurring compound. While it may help manage healthy LDL cholesterol, you should use it with caution and under medical supervision because of potential side effects.
  • Berberine: A compound found in certain plants, berberine can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. It also offers other health benefits, such as supporting blood sugar control.
  • Garlic: Mixed with other things like supplements or just added to your diet, garlic can help to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
  • Green tea: Certain studies show that antioxidants found in green tea can maintain healthy LDL cholesterol levels. Regular consumption may have cardiovascular benefits.
  • Artichoke leaf extract: Some studies have shown that artichoke leaf extract can maintain healthy cholesterol levels, especially LDL cholesterol.
  • Fenugreek: These seeds are associated with improved lipid profiles and can help maintain healthy total and LDL cholesterol levels. You can find fenugreek seeds in seed or supplement form.
  • Psyllium: Psyllium husk is an excellent source of soluble fiber and is often used as a natural laxative. In the digestive tract, the herb can maintain healthy LDL cholesterol by binding to it.


  • Niacin (vitamin B3): Niacin supplements can promote HDL cholesterol while maintaining healthy total and LDL cholesterol. However, you should be careful with its use due to potential side effects.
  • Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10): Although it will not directly impact cholesterol levels, it will support cardiovascular health.
  • Policosanol: Fun fact — this is derived from sugarcane! Those looking to maintain healthy LDL and HDL cholesterol levels can explore this supplement.
  • Chromium: This is another option with a primary use unrelated to cholesterol. Chromium is usually used for blood sugar regulation, but it may also help improve your lipid profile.

It is important to emphasize that while these alternative therapies and cholesterol supplements may offer potential benefits, they should not replace prescribed medications. They should only be used when medically necessary and under the guidance of a healthcare provider. 

The most appropriate approach to managing cholesterol will vary by person depending on factors like overall health and lifestyle choices. Consequently, constant monitoring of cholesterol levels and overall cardiovascular health is crucial and should not be overlooked.

More importantly, if your healthcare provider gives you specific instructions to follow a certain alternative therapy (such as making dietary changes), it is imperative to prioritize them, even if you may later revert to other alternatives. 


Frequently asked questions

Q: What foods will interfere with cholesterol?
A: Food high in saturated and trans fats, such as fatty meats, butter, ice cream, palm oil, fast foods, and commercially baked goods, can negatively impact cholesterol.  

Q: How often should you get your cholesterol checked?
A: You should start getting your cholesterol levels checked at age 20 and do so every four to six years. This test is called a lipid profile. Your doctor may advise you to have your cholesterol checked more frequently. 

Q: What is normal cholesterol level?
A: In adults, normal total cholesterol is less than 200 mg/dL. 

Q: Is it always true that a product is low in fat if the label says "low cholesterol"?
A: Not always. Oils that may be high in unhealthy saturated fats can be found in many foods labeled "low cholesterol." 


Actionable tips and takeaways for readers

Healthy cholesterol is manageable with the right strategies. Below is a summary of the tips explored in this article for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.

  • Know your numbers: The first step is knowing your cholesterol levels. A lipid profile assessment can tell you how much total cholesterol you have, LDL and HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. This information is crucial when creating a plan of action.
  • Regular checkups: Visit your healthcare provider regularly to maintain good heart health and check your cholesterol levels. They will recommend any tests that need to be taken.
  • Try the Mediterranean Diet: This diet will focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats such as olive oil. Studies show the Mediterranean Diet can help maintain healthy LDL cholesterol levels and promote heart health.
  • Avoid saturated and trans fats: Try to consume less red meat and full-fat dairy products that contain saturated fats, as well as trans fats, which are commonly found in processed and fast foods.
  • Increase soluble fiber intake: Foods like beans, apples, and oats are rich in soluble fiber, which can help maintain healthy LDL cholesterol levels.
  • Stay active: Exercise is one of the most powerful tools. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week at least. Activities like brisk walking, jogging, and swimming can maintain healthy HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels.
  • Quit smoking: Smoking can damage blood vessels and negatively impact HDL cholesterol levels. Get help to quit, and you can improve your heart health.
  • Tone down your alcohol intake: If you drink alcohol, do so moderately. As mentioned, no more than one drink per day for women and two for men is recommended.
  • Follow doctor’s orders: A doctor may prescribe medication if lifestyle changes are insufficient to manage cholesterol. Always take them as directed by the doctor and be sure to follow up with any questions or concerns.
  • Reduce everyday stress: Stress can negatively affect heart health. Therefore, engage in stress-reducing activities such as yoga, meditation, or hobbies.
  • Weight management: Try to maintain a healthy weight by adopting a balanced diet and exercising regularly. A healthy weight can significantly impact cholesterol levels.
  • Monitor your diet: Start a food diary to track what you eat. Be aware of your portion sizes and the amount of sugar you consume. Additionally, take note of how different foods affect your cholesterol levels.
  • Stay informed: Stay informed of new ways to manage cholesterol. When it comes to making decisions about your health, knowledge is key.
  • Engage your support systems: Let friends and family in so they can support you in your journey. Doing this with others can help make this process more feasible and enjoyable.

Managing cholesterol is a lifelong commitment to heart health and overall well-being. By implementing these actionable tips, you can keep your heart happy and enjoy a healthier, more vibrant life. 

Always consult your healthcare provider for personalized guidance and to ensure you are on the right path to cholesterol management and overall heart health.



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