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If you’re having a cholesterol test soon, you might wonder what to expect when you get your results. If they’re high, will this mean a lifetime of medicine? Are there other kinds of treatments?

You might be surprised to learn that some people can lower cholesterol without medication. It depends on your risk factors for heart disease, and what your doctor thinks is best for you.

Learn more about what your numbers mean and what options you might have for keeping your cholesterol in a healthy range, including the best foods to eat to maintain a heart-healthy diet.

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What Do the Cholesterol Numbers Mean?

Your total cholesterol level shows how much cholesterol you have in your blood, and your test results will fall into one of these ranges:

  • 200 mg/dL or lower = normal
  • 200 – 239 mg/dL = borderline high
  • 240 mg/dL or higher = high

Your total number includes:

  • HDL, or “good” cholesterol. HDL helps take away LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, from your blood, so a higher number is better.
  • LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. LDL is linked to the buildup of plaque in your blood vessels, so a lower number is better.
  • Triglycerides, a type of fat. Triglycerides are also linked to the buildup of plaque in your blood vessels, so a lower number is better.

Am I at Risk for Heart Disease?

If your cholesterol numbers are in the normal range, you should keep eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and practicing other healthy habits to make sure your numbers stay low. Keeping your cholesterol in a healthy range is one of many things you can do to keep your risk for heart disease low.

If your numbers are borderline high or high, your risk for heart disease is increased. When you have too much cholesterol in your blood, it can build up in your blood vessels as plaque. Over time, plaque can make your blood vessels hard, narrow, or become completely blocked, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

What Are My High Cholesterol Treatment Options?

The good news is that high cholesterol can be treated. In order to create the best treatment plan for you, your doctor will take into account your general health, habits, risk factors, and family history. Many people can lower their numbers through lifestyle changes by eating heart-healthy foods and getting regular exercise.

Eating a Heart-Healthy Diet

Adjusting your diet can help and will boost your health in other ways, too — cholesterol-friendly foods are often loaded with other important nutrients. Eating foods that are low in fat, cholesterol, and sodium and high in fiber are best.

Eat These

  • Fish, with its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, is an excellent food option if you are looking to boost your good cholesterol levels.
  • Whole grains and oats are also a good option, as they provide high amounts of fiber, which has been shown to greatly reduce levels of bad cholesterol.
  • Eaten in moderation, nuts are a good option if you get hungry throughout the day and want a cholesterol-friendly snack. Try any variety — almonds are particularly good for your heart.

Avoid These High-Cholesterol Foods

  • Trans fats are becoming less abundant in U.S. foods thanks to U.S. Food and Drug Administration efforts against them, but check the labels of your favorite foods just to make sure you’re avoiding them.
  • Saturated fats aren’t nearly as dangerous as trans fats, but too high a fat intake can affect your cholesterol levels, so be wary how much you consume.

Regular Exercise and Cholesterol

Staying active is another way to reduce your risk of high cholesterol. Regular exercise helps control weight, raise HDL, and lower LDL and triglycerides. Find an activity you enjoy — biking, swimming, walking, tennis — and try to do it for an hour every day.

If these changes aren’t enough to get your numbers into a healthy range, your doctor might prescribe medication. It’s very important to stay on your treatment plan, and to practice healthy habits, whether your doctor prescribes medicine or not.

To learn more about cholesterol, heart disease, and how to keep your risks low, visit the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute or call 1-855-UPMC-HVI.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.