How to improve your cholesterol profile

You can't change your age or family medical history, both of which can affect your cholesterol levels. However, you can lose weight and boost physical activity, which will help lower your LDL cholesterol and boost HDL. Probably the most important step, though, is changing the way you eat.

Focus on fats. Most of the cholesterol in our bodies does not come directly from cholesterol-containing foods like eggs. Rather, it is made by our bodies from components of food. To improve your cholesterol profile, avoid saturated fats (found in animal products). These fats increase unhealthy LDL levels. Instead, replace some of the saturated fats in your diet with healthier unsaturated fats, which are found in fish, nuts, avocados, and vegetable oils, such as olive oil, canola oil, and safflower oil.

Choose whole grains. Whole-grain breads, pasta, and cereal help prevent dramatic ups and downs in blood sugar and make you feel full longer. Many of these foods contain fiber that lowers LDL levels.

Make healthy substitutions. Eat more fruits and vegetables, especially if you substitute these for processed foods like potato chips. And make healthy dairy substitutions: fat-free milk instead of whole milk, or plain yogurt instead of sugar-laden versions.

Take a cholesterol-lowering drug if you are at high risk for heart disease—even if your cholesterol is normal. Statin drugs first became available in the 1980s and proved far better at lowering total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol than previous drugs. These medications reduce the body's production of LDL cholesterol and help it reabsorb existing LDL. When studies showed that taking statins reduced the chance of getting heart disease, most doc-tors assumed that this was exclusively through their ability to lower cholesterol. However, statins also lower the chance of heart disease even if you have normal levels of total cholesterol or LDL cholesterol. The likely reason: statins dampen inflammation and help prevent arterial plaques from rupturing and causing a heart attack.

The decision to go on a statin depends on your age and overall cardiovascular risk. If your cholesterol is high-normal but your overall risk of a heart attack is low, it may be unnecessary to take a statin. Conversely, if your cholesterol is average but your overall risk is high, taking a statin may be a smart move.