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Lifestyle Factors that Affect My Cholesterol

Nina Ghamrawi, MS, RD, CDE
December 18, 2021

Right now in the United states, every 37 seconds a person dies from complications of heart disease, usually related to high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. It is the leading cause of death in the US, and because it is so common, many people think that it is unavoidable. We often think of high cholesterol, otherwise known as cardiovascular disease, as something that everyone gets naturally over time. We assume it is related to genetics, and we might think - “Well, if I can’t avoid it, then I might as well just live my life and enjoy it!” But what we don’t realize is that we can also enjoy a healthy active life, it doesn’t need to be a chore, and it can stop the trend of high cholesterol and heart disease!

Family history, Smoking, Overweight, an Unhealthy diet, and Inactivity are all common habits that increase our risks for developing heart disease. In today’s society, where there are more processed foods, and more products and foods aimed at making life more convenient. As a result, the average American moves less, burns fewer calories, and eats many more calories and preservatives than 30 years ago, and even 50 and 100 years ago! That means that our risk of developing obesity or heart disease from high cholesterol or high blood pressure is higher than that of our parents, and higher than that of our grandparents.

There are steps you can take on your own to help lower your bad cholesterol (LDL). It's not always easy, but making better food choices and staying active can improve your heart health.


Though our genes play a large part in our health risks, most of our risk comes, sincerely, from lifestyle. If your blood cholesterol levels remain high even if you take medication, are not overweight, you live healthfully with exercise and healthy diet, and you don’t smoke, then it is likely that you have some genetic component.

What foods should I eat if I have high cholesterol?

  • Fruits, like apples, pears, berries, melon, plums, and citrus fruits
  • Whole grains: oatmeal, barley, quinoa, brown rice, farro, whole wheat, wheat berries, beans, lentils, and other grains
  • Seafood rich in omega-3 fats: salmon, tuna, sardines, trout, oysters
  • Low-fat or nondairy products, like skim milk, low-fat yogurt, low-fat cheese, and nut milk
  • Lean meat, like chicken without the skin
  • "Healthy fats", like olive oil, avocados, olives, and some nuts

What foods should I eat less often if I have high cholesterol?

  • "Bad fats", like fried food, red meat, whole-fat dairy, butter, and margarine
  • Sugar
  • Salt

How can I continue to eat healthy?

Sticking to a healthy diet isn't easy, but there are some helpful tips to help you stay on track:

  • Shop in season - local and in-season produce is usually less expensive than imported produce
  • Be prepared - frozen and canned vegetables, meats, and seafood without added sugar or salt can help you prepare a healthy meal at any time
  • Plan meals - plan out your meals to be sure you're including the right foods every day
  • Pick your proteins - add a meatless meal to your week to focus more on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Track recipes - when your family really enjoys a healthy meal, make a note to prepare it again

What are some activities I can try today?

Low-impact activities are a great way to get started on a daily routine. Even 10 minutes of brisk walking a few times a day is proven to be good for your heart. Some healthy activities include:

  • Yoga
  • Strength training, with or without weights
  • Tennis
  • Gardening
  • Bicycling
  • Swimming or water exercise
  • Elliptical trainer
  • Walking

What are some ideas for staying on track with exercise?

The easiest way to stay on track is to choose activities that you enjoy. But there's more you can do to keep yourself motivated:

  • Exercise at the same time every day to make it part of your routine
  • Have an inside activity plan for bad weather- a variety of your favorite exercise videos, for example, so you don’t get bored
  • Exercise with someone else, so you can encourage and support each other
  • Have a few activities you enjoy, so you don't get bored always doing the same thing

Smoking Cessation

If you smoke, definitely try to reduce it. There are several studies that link smoking to early death, and not just from cardiovascular complications, either. Though strong genetics definitely helps a person reduce their risks of complications, it is not the only factor - our parents may have smoked, but they may have been raised with more nutritious, natural foods, and were likely more physically active, and less stressed than we are today. So they may have had reduced risks for other reasons. Talk to your doctor about a smoking cessation or reduction plan. Even tiny changes help!

Weight Reduction

Though the research is not 100% correlated, likely for the same reasons as genetics and combinations of other factors, there is still a significant correlation between maintaining a healthy weight and reduction in disease risk. Your Dietitian and health coach are very knowledgeable about weight reduction strategies. Talk to them to set up a plan and boost your longevity!

Every step toward a healthier you is a step in the right direction! The important thing is that you plan a program you can stick with. Your doctor, dietitian, or health coach can help you decide which foods to eat and plan which activities are suitable for you.