Health Library

Categories > Heart Health > Cholesterol

Crunching the numbers: Ways to combat high cholesterol
Learn where you stand

Leveling off your numbers
Leveling off your numbers

Aim for these desired cholesterol levels. If you already have heart disease or other risk factors, your doctor may set different goals for you.

Total cholesterolless than 200 mg/dLHDL cholesterolgreater than 50 mg/dL for women, 40 mg/dL for menLDL cholesterolless than 100 mg/dLTriglyceridesless than 150 mg/dL

The bad news: High cholesterol plays a key role in whether you develop heart disease or suffer a stroke or a heart attack. The good news: You can do something about it. Excess cholesterol, a waxy, fatlike substance in your blood, builds up on artery walls, reducing blood flow, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. Many factors contribute to high cholesterol. While you can’t change your genes, age or gender—which all affect cholesterol—you can take the following steps to improve your cholesterol levels and your health.

Learn where you stand

First, you’ll need a lipoprotein profile, a blood test that measures your:

  • total cholesterol
  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol that builds up in your arteries
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol that helps carry away LDL cholesterol to prevent buildup
  • triglycerides, another blood fat that increases your risk of heart disease if levels are high

Second, to improve your cholesterol profile and reduce your health risk, you’ll need to lower your LDL cholesterol and raise your HDL cholesterol to desired levels by:

  • Eating smart. Certain types of fats—saturated fat, trans fats and dietary cholesterol—raise blood cholesterol. To lower LDL cholesterol, limit saturated fat to less than 7 percent of daily calories, avoid trans fats (found in many baked goods) and keep dietary cholesterol at less than 200 milligrams a day. Use polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats like safflower, sesame, sunflower, corn, soybean, canola, olive and peanut oils. Eat no more than six ounces of lean meat, fish or skinless poultry a day. Choose plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods. Switch to fat-free or low-fat dairy products; increase soluble fiber found in foods like oats, beans and citrus fruits; and use cholesterol-lowering margarines and salad dressings that contain plant stanols or plant sterols.
  • Adopting healthier lifestyle habits. Regular exercise can help raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol. Get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity most days of the week, or 60 to 90 minutes if you need to lose weight. Smoking lowers good levels and increases the blood’s tendency to clot, so if you smoke, enroll in a program to help you quit.
  • Considering medication. If lifestyle changes haven’t improved your cholesterol enough, your healthcare provider may prescribe cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Once you’ve lowered your cholesterol, it’s important to keep it low to reduce your overall risk of heart disease. This also means keeping your blood pressure below 120/80 mm Hg.