Manage Your Cholesterol
Want to lower your risk for heart attack or stroke? Getting your cholesterol checked is a great first step. A doctor can tell you what your cholesterol levels are, and there are plenty of small steps you can take to keep it in check.
Cholesterol is a little… tricky
When you think about cholesterol, you probably think of it as all bad. But your body actually needs cholesterol to build cells, make vitamins and hormones, and even digest food. The thing is, your liver has you covered — it makes all the cholesterol you need. When you eat certain foods, your liver makes more cholesterol than it should. And that’s when things can get bad for your heart.
The good news? There are lots of ways to keep your cholesterol in a healthy range. The first step may be having a doctor check your levels, but the rest is in your hands. You’ve got options for how to get started!
Cholesterol fast facts
- Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that your body makes — it’s also in some foods
- There are 2 types of cholesterol:
- “Good” cholesterol is called HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein)
- “Bad” cholesterol is called LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein)
Pro tip: To keep HDL and LDL straight, remember the H in HDL stands for “Healthy” and you want it “Higher” — the L in LDL stands for “Lousy” and you want it “Lower”
- When there’s too much cholesterol in your blood, it can build up in your arteries and blood vessels (the buildup is called plaque) — and that can lead to heart attack and stroke
- The key to managing cholesterol is boosting good cholesterol and lowering bad cholesterol
- The only way to know if you have high cholesterol is to get it checked
Get your cholesterol checked
Knowing your cholesterol levels puts you in the driver’s seat. It’s a great first step in taking charge of your cholesterol — and learning what you can do to lower it. Remember, the only way to know if your cholesterol is high is to get it checked.
How do cholesterol checks work?
A technician will take a small sample of blood from your finger or arm, and the results — called a lipid profile — will show your cholesterol levels.
How often should I get my cholesterol checked?
In general, every 4 to 6 years. But if you have high cholesterol or other conditions, you might need to get it checked more often. Talk to your health care professional about how often you need to get your cholesterol checked.
Once you know your cholesterol levels — the good and the bad — it’s your job to keep them in a healthy range! Remember, you don’t have to overhaul your life — just choose 1 thing you’ll do today for your heart. A 5-minute dance break? A healthy snack while you’re on the go? Swap out butter for olive oil while making dinner? You’ve got choices!
You might be more likely to have high cholesterol if people in your family have had it, too. This could put you at higher risk of heart attack and stroke at a younger age — but it also puts you in a position to start making a change for a healthier heart now. Find out if anyone in your family has high cholesterol — and then ask a doctor what that means for you.
How can I start managing my cholesterol levels?
There are plenty of things you can do to keep your cholesterol in check:
- Get your cholesterol checked, and own your numbers once you know them
- Eat healthy for your heart — cut back on saturated fat and choose foods with lots of fiber
- Get active to help keep your cholesterol in a healthy range — just 10 minutes a day can make a difference!
- If a health care professional has prescribed medicine to manage your cholesterol, make sure to carefully follow all instructions for taking it
- If you smoke, make a plan to quit — smoking damages your blood vessels and increases your risk of heart attack and stroke
Focus on a heart-healthy diet — most of the time
When it comes to managing cholesterol, making small changes to what you eat can really help you live to your beat! Remember, you don’t have to aim for perfect. Small changes can make a huge difference over time. Get started today by watching out for saturated fat in the foods you choose.
Why limit saturated fat?
Eating too much saturated fat — like the fat in butter, full-fat milk, and fatty meats — raises your bad cholesterol. On the flipside, choosing healthy fats — or unsaturated fats — like low-fat dairy products, poultry, and fish can lower it. In fact, studies have shown that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fats can lower your risk of heart disease almost as much as taking medicine for high cholesterol!
Will eating foods with cholesterol raise my bad cholesterol?
Not exactly. Experts used to think that cholesterol from foods you eat would raise bad cholesterol in your blood. But it turns out that cholesterol in food isn’t the issue — the real problem is saturated fat. It’s a little confusing because many foods high in cholesterol are also high in saturated fat. Here’s the gist:
- Foods like fatty meats and full-fat dairy products aren’t great for your heart because they have cholesterol and a lot of saturated fat
- On the other hand, foods like eggs and shrimp are healthy to eat in moderation even though they have cholesterol because they’re low in saturated fat
The takeaway? Focus on avoiding saturated fat more than cholesterol in the foods you eat.
Lower your bad LDL cholesterol today by:
- Cooking with canola or olive oil instead of butter
- Eating fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, like apples or broccoli
Raise your good HDL cholesterol today by:
- Having a high-fiber breakfast, like oatmeal
- Swapping a salty snack for unsalted nuts
Get a little more active
Physical activity can help you lower your cholesterol levels and feel your best. It’s a powerful way to invest in your heart health. And since there are endless ways to move more, you can find what works for you.
Want to get started today? Take the stairs! You’ve probably heard it before, but walking up a few flights of stairs when you can is a great way to sneak in activity when you’re strapped for time.
Smoking really increases your risk for heart problems. It damages your blood vessels — throughout the body. If you smoke, quitting is a great place to start your heart-health journey.
Consider medicine to lower high cholesterol
If you have high cholesterol, you might need to add medicine to your heart-health plan. Keep in mind that taking medicine isn’t a substitute for eating healthy and getting active — they all work together to help keep your heart in tip-top shape.
Do I really need to take medicine for high cholesterol?
If the idea of taking medicine to manage cholesterol isn’t your favorite, you’re not alone. Starting a new medicine routine can be a pain, but it can also save your life. Work with your health care professional to find the best medicine to help manage your high cholesterol.
And remember, questions are key when it comes to knowing how to best take care of your heart — so ask away! Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists can give you clear answers and make sure you understand what it all means.
Here are some questions to ask the doctor about cholesterol medicines:
- Will I take the medicine every day?
- Are there any side effects I should know about?
- How long will I need to take medicine?
- If I’m taking medicine for my cholesterol, how will I know if it’s making a difference?
Take Action, Live Healthy! Cholesterol Guide [PDF - 2.1 MB]
Check, change, and manage your cholesterol with this in-depth guide.
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Cholesterol Myths and Facts
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Find a Health Center
If you don’t have insurance, use this tool to find a health center where you may be able to get free or low-cost cholesterol checks.