Over the winter months, some of us may experience a gradual increase in our cholesterol levels. There are many reasons for this, which include taking part in less exercise while the weather is bad, or eating "winter meals" which contain lots of calories or unhealthy ingredients. It's no secret that a lot of the food we eat at Christmas time is pretty unhealthy which can exacerbate the problem, so it is really important we keep an eye on our cholesterol.
Having high cholesterol will increase your risk of developing heart disease and as a result, having a heart attack or stroke. However, in most cases it is possible to lower your cholesterol level just with a few lifestyle changes, which can go a long way towards lowering this risk.
Even those on medication should also make these changes, as they may find their treatment is more successful with a combination approach.
Weight loss and exercise
Even being slightly overweight can contribute towards high cholesterol, so just losing 5 to 10% of your bodyweight can have a significant impact on your overall cholesterol levels.1
If this sounds familiar, you should aim to lose 1 or 2 lbs a week by consuming a healthy, balanced diet. Many of us consume more calories than we need to maintain a steady bodyweight, which is around 2,500 for men and 2,000 for women carrying out an average amount of daily physical activity. Cutting back just a little can have a big impact.
Also, it doesn't help that many of us exercise too little, and this combination means weight gain is even more likely. Exercise is one of the best ways of improving your cholesterol profile, so even adding a little to your daily routine - such as using the stairs instead of the lift, can go a long way. Ideally, you should accumulate 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every day. Going for a brisk walk at lunch or riding your bike to work are just two ways you can do this.
Pick foods which are good for the heart
Just a few changes to the type of food you eat can have positive results on your cholesterol level. Cutting saturated fats, such as those found in processed foods, red meat and full-fat dairy products will help to lower your "bad" (LDL) cholesterol, while eating healthier unsaturated fats can help to raise your "good" (HDL) cholesterol. Good sources of unsaturated fat include nuts, seeds, olive oil and lean meats, while you can also get healthy omega-3 fatty acids by eating oily fish.
Fruit and vegetables are very important as the soluble fibre they contain can also help to lower cholesterol. You should always aim to eat five portions of fruit and veg a day, with fruit in particular being a great snack. You may also want to experiment with vegetable casseroles to increase your intake.
Also important are whole grains, which contain nutrients which are good for the heart. This means having wholegrain bread, pasta, flour and brown rice where possible.
Smoking has been found to decrease HDL cholesterol levels, so giving up can reverse that process. Smoking seriously increases the risk of a heart attack, but that risk can be lowered within 24 hours of quitting, and if you quit for a year your risk is reduced by half. After 15 years, your risk of heart disease is at a similar level to somebody who has never smoked.
Drink in moderation
Moderate use of alcohol has been linked to higher levels of protective HDL cholesterol - although the benefits aren't strong enough to suggest somebody who is teetotal starts to drink. Drinking too much alcohol can increase your blood pressure and lead to some serious health problems such as cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer, so if you do like a tipple, make sure you stick to the healthy limits. If you're male this means no more than 21 units of alcohol a week and no more than three to four units a day and for women this means no more than 14 units a week and a maximum of two to three units a day.
Getting more help
Sometimes lifestyle changes aren't enough to lower cholesterol, so your doctor may recommend medication as well. You should of course continue with the new healthy habits as they will help ensure the medication is as effective as possible.