Healthy Outlook: How I cut my cholesterol by 62 points in 1 year

Picture it: Lawrence, February 2017. I’m going about my day when suddenly I get a voicemail about my blood panel results.

My total cholesterol is “a little elevated,” the message says — nothing my doctor is “really concerned about at this time.” But that number was 235, and the cutoff between “borderline” and “high” is 239, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Terror strikes my heart, and my thumbs fly across my phone screen with the speed of a thousand arrows: “how to lower cholesterok.” Google corrects my hurried search terms and displays thousands of lifesaving websites. That night, I vow in Scarlett O’Hara-esque fashion that I will never get results like that again.

I’m able to laugh now about how I reacted. I was heartbroken because I thought I’d been living such a healthy lifestyle — and relative to my former life, I was — but that was a major wake-up call. I’m pleased to say that 368 days later, my new results revealed a total cholesterol number of 173 — 62 points lower, and safely in “good” range of less than 200.

So, how to lower your cholesterol? I think most people know you eat a balanced diet, get regular exercise and avoid things that are bad for you, such as smoking. But I also think sometimes it’s not so clear what all of that really means or how the average person can put it into practice.

Here are some things that helped me see a huge improvement in just one year:

Lesson 1: Ham is red meat. I know a lot of people will read that and say “duh,” but I honestly didn’t realize my “healthy,” protein-packed portion of ham steak with breakfast every morning was a source of saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium akin to a big steak. There are plenty of healthier sources of protein, which I know now, but that’s mostly anecdotal. The point here is to take a step back and consider what you’re eating — is it really as healthy as you think?

Take fiber to the max. It’s unfortunate that there will probably never come a time that Metamucil can be considered “cool,” but significantly increasing your fiber intake is great for your heart, and the powdery stuff really isn’t that bad. I also tossed aside cream cheese-slathered bagels and started eating oatmeal for breakfast almost every morning (make-ahead makes it easy), at least until I started making green smoothies daily.

A lot of exercise makes your heart happy. In my workouts, I began to focus less on how my body would look on the outside and more on how it would feel on the inside. Over time, your endurance improves and you can gradually push just a little bit harder. I started running for true fitness, not just for my weight, and I’ve relished it.

More from the fridge, less from the pantry. In general, foods that can be stored in your pantry and don’t need to be kept fresh in the refrigerator are just not as good for you. They often contain a lot more sodium, preservatives and other chemicals that maybe won’t harm you outright, but certainly won’t do you as much good as the fresh produce and other such items that must be kept in the refrigerator or freezer.

There’s a way to make everything healthier. My family, and now even my co-workers, won’t eat food I made without asking if it contains quinoa (because they know it usually does. Maybe one of these days, I’ll share my recipe for cranberry quinoa muffins). Bananas and unsweetened applesauce make great substitutes for sugar; cauliflower can be used in place of regular flour in many dishes; quinoa is an ideal replacement for rice in any meal, and it will add some real nutritional fortification to any number of other dishes. Here’s a tip: Next time you seek out a new recipe online, even if it’s for a dessert, add “healthier” to your search and see what pops up — just make sure to vet the results carefully.

If you’re counting calories, make your calories count. For instance, if you’re going to have a sandwich, have it on some healthy, whole-grain bread. Don’t settle for less-healthy options. If you’re not sure how to decide, the United States Department of Agriculture website,, is stocked with excellent resources based on up-to-date research.

You can sneak it in, too. Foods such as chia seeds and ground flaxseed are flavor-neutral, meaning they take on the flavor of whatever they’re with, but they add a ton of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. They’ll boost your “good” cholesterol (HDL) and lower the “bad” (LDL). Nary a day goes by that I don’t eat one or both of these mixed into a meal (or smoothie).

There are supplements available. You should check with your doctor first, but some over-the-counter supplements can really help knock down your cholesterol. I took NatureMade’s CholestOff (or CholestOff Plus) all year, starting with the recommended four capsules per day and tapering down slowly to two per day because it’s kind of pricey. I’m sure it was a large factor in my improved numbers.

I don’t want to say it was easy to get my cholesterol down so much in a year, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Now, my new lab results hang on my refrigerator like a straight-A report card, and I am relieved every day that my efforts have paid off.

About Healthy Outlook

Healthy Outlook is a column written by Journal-World reporter and Health section editor Mackenzie Clark, in hopes of helping readers make their lives a little bit happier, healthier and more active.

Have questions about the world of health and wellness in Lawrence, or a health story idea? Contact Mackenzie:

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