Did you know that for every 10% drop in your cholesterol level, your heart attack risk drops by 20% to 30%? There’s more good news: Most of us can reduce cholesterol quickly, and without the need for medications. Simple lifestyle strategies can be very powerful.
That’s what several studies on thousands following the Pritikin Program of diet and exercise have found. Within three weeks, people were able to lower their cholesterol levels on average 23%, which translates into a 46% to 69% drop in heart attack risk.1
5 Tactics To Reduce Cholesterol Quickly
Below are 5 of the key lifestyle-change tactics taught by the physicians, registered dietitians, exercise physiologists, and other faculty at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami for fast, significant lowering of cholesterol levels, particularly LDL bad cholesterol.
If you’re serious about lowering your cholesterol and taking good care of your heart, these 5 tactics are a great place to start. They’ll also help you shed excess weight, which will also improve heart health.1
Focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans
Our typical American diet is now abbreviated as SAD (Standard American Diet) by scientists nationwide because it’s full of foods that do sad things to both hearts and waistlines. Hyperprocessed foods like potato chips and French fries. Sugar-saturated drinks. And fatty, artery-clogging meats and full-fat dairy foods like cheese.
We don’t have to become complete vegetarians to get our cholesterol levels into healthy ranges, studies on the Pritikin Program have found, but clearly, the more vegetables, fruits, potatoes, and other naturally-fiber-rich plant foods we eat, the healthier we’ll be.
Plant foods high in soluble fiber are especially beneficial in lowering total and LDL bad cholesterol levels. Good sources include beans (pinto beans, black beans, etc), yams, oats (yes, eat your oatmeal!), barley, and berries.
For simple tips on bringing more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans into your life, here is a 5-day sample healthy meal plan from the doctors and dietitians at Pritikin Longevity Center.2
Eat far fewer of the following fats…
Foods with a lot of heart-damaging saturated fat include butter, meat, palm oil, coconut oil, and full-fat and low-fat dairy products, such as whole milk, low-fat milk, cheese, and cream.
If you see partially hydrogenated fat in the Ingredient List of a food label, that food has trans fats, which not only raise bad LDL cholesterol, they also lower good HDL cholesterol.
Top sources of dietary cholesterol include egg yolks, organ meats, and shellfish.
One type of fat – omega-3 fatty acids – has been shown to protect against heart disease. Excellent sources are cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, halibut, trout, herring, and sardines.
But do keep in mind that limiting fat intake, even so-called “good” fats like omega-3 fat or Mediterranean-style fats like olive oil, is a good idea because any fat is dense with calories, which means heavy consumption can easily lead to a heavy body. That’s bad news not just for our weight but our hearts because being overweight adversely affects blood cholesterol levels.
Excess weight is linked not just to heart disease but to a staggering list of other woes, including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, gout, dementia, and many cancers.3
Eat more plant sources of protein…
Excellent plant proteins include beans – all beans, like lentils, red beans, pinto beans, and soybeans. Rather than raising blood cholesterol levels, as animal sources of protein do, beans actually help lower cholesterol.
Beans also help reduce blood sugar and insulin levels, and may even lower cancer risk.
When choosing products made from soybeans, stick to:
(available in most grocery store freezer sections, often described as edamame)
vanilla, original, or unsweetened
(unflavored/unmarinated – found in refrigerator cases)
All the above are great choices for your cholesterol profile and overall health.4
Eat fewer refined grains, such as white flour.
We’re a nation of “white food” eaters – white bread, white rice, white pasta, and white-flour foods like muffins, croissants, bagels, crackers, dried cereals, tortillas, pretzels, and chips. Yes, more than half of many Americans’ typical diets are made up of hyperprocessed refined white flour, often injected with sugar, salt, and/or fat.
That’s a real problem in part because the more white, or refined, grains we eat, the fewer whole grains we tend to take in. Research has found that eating whole grains can help lower both total and LDL cholesterol, and improve heart health.
In Harvard University’s Nurses’ Health Study, for example, women who ate two to three servings of whole-grain products (mostly bread and breakfast cereals) each day were 30% less likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease over a 10-year period than women who ate less than one serving of whole grains per week.2
When first starting to make the switch from refined to whole grains, many people often feel a bit confused. Where to begin? What’s whole? What isn’t?
The registered dietitians at the Pritikin Longevity Center start with one very simple rule. When looking at products like breads and cereals, they recommend turning the package around and making sure the first word in the Ingredient List is “whole.” If you see the word “whole” at the top of the list, it’s a good bet that what you’re buying is in fact 100% whole grain, or close to it.
Another tip for getting more whole grains in your life comes from the chefs at Pritikin, who teach healthy cooking classes every day at the Center. “Expand your culinary horizons. There are many delicious whole-grain choices in just about every grocery store. Get beyond brown rice!” encourages Executive Chef Anthony Stewart.
“Introduce yourself to a whole new world of flavors with whole grains like whole-wheat couscous, polenta (cornmeal), quinoa, wild rice, and kasha.”
The really good news is that many whole grains are surprisingly quick and easy to prepare. Often, all you need is a pot of hot water and a little stirring action.
Here, from Chef Anthony, is a simple and savory recipe for whole-wheat couscous. Enjoy it for lunch, as a side dish, or as a hearty snack any time of day.
Regular exercise may only slightly lower your total and LDL cholesterol levels, but it often does a very good job, in combination with a healthy eating plan like Pritikin, of helping you shed excess weight, which can dramatically improve your cholesterol profile.
Just getting out for a 30-minute walk most days of the week is a great start, but for optimal health and protection from cardiovascular disease, the exercise physiologists at the Pritikin Longevity Center coach people in three key forms of exercise:
daily, a minimum of 30 minutes and optimally 60 to 90 minutes, alternating moderate-intensity days with vigorous-intensity days.
“But don’t think you have to do it all at once,” says Pritikin Fitness Director Scott Danberg, MS. “If you’re pressed for time, something like 15 minutes of brisk walking in the morning, another 15 at lunch, and another 15 after dinner is an excellent alternative.”
Concerned about vigorous exercise? Afraid it might be harmful to your heart? Before launching an exercise program, it’s always important to schedule an appointment with your physician to make sure you’re in good shape for cardiovascular workouts. At Pritikin, every guest undergoes treadmill stress testing, plus a 1-hour consultation with one of Pritikin’s board-certified physicians, before starting exercise classes.
routine two to three times weekly.
You don’t need high-tech weight machines, guests at Pritikin learn. Simple hand weights or resistance bands can provide a superb full-body workout, and in just 20 to 25 minutes.
daily to greatly enhance overall flexibility and ability to exercise more freely.
“For stretching, many of our guests really enjoy our yoga classes,” observes Scott Danberg. “Yoga is a wonderful way to wind down after cardiovascular and resistance training.”
Eating Well + Exercise
For best results with a healthy lifestyle, new research has found that plunging right in with both healthy eating and exercising is the way to go.3
The Stanford University School of Medicine study involved 200 middle-aged Americans, all sedentary and with poor eating habits. Some were told to launch new food and fitness habits at the same time. Others began dieting but waited several months before beginning to exercise. A third group started exercising but didn’t change eating habits till several months later.
All the groups received telephone coaching and were followed for one year. The winning group was the one making food and exercise changes together. The people in this group were most likely to meet U.S. guidelines for exercise (150 minutes per week) and healthy eating (5 to 9 servings of fruit and vegetables per day), and to keep calories from saturated fat at less than 10% of their total intake of calories.
If lifestyle changes aren’t enough…
Take medications, if you need to, to lower your cholesterol into healthy ranges. “Drugs like statins can be very effective,” says cardiologist and Pritikin Medical Director Ronald Scheib, MD, “but do continue in your efforts to eat well and exercise because a healthy lifestyle can give you far, far more than drugs alone.
“With a healthy living program like Pritikin, you’re not only reducing cholesterol quickly, you’re also creating changes throughout your body that can profoundly improve your overall well-being. You’re reducing blood sugar levels and blood pressure. Other heart disease risk factors like triglyceride fats are also dropping dramatically. You’re also reducing inflammatory factors that sicken arteries. You’re shedding excess weight. And, quite simply, you’re feeling better, much better. Many of our guests at Pritikin tell us, ‘I had no idea I could feel this good again.’
“Can any pill or combination of pills do all of the above? I highly doubt it. But a healthy lifestyle like Pritikin can.”
- 1 Archives of Internal Medicine, 1991; 151: 1389.
- 2 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1999; 70 (3): 412.
- 3 Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2013; published online April 21.