Had your annual physical lately? Here’s a reason why you should: Even if you eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly, your cholesterol might be higher than you’d like.Janis Jilbrin, R.D., co-author of The Life You Want! Get Motivated, Lose Weight and Be Happy (Simon & Schuster 2011, co-authored with Bob Greene and psychologist Anne Kearney-Cooke), explains the deal with cholesterol and what foods you can eat to help keep yours down.What would cause your cholesterol to be high in the first place? “Sometimes having high LDL — the “bad” cholesterol — is genetic,” says Jilbrin. LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein, and it’s considered the “bad” cholesterol, Jilbrin explains, because it takes fat and deposits it into your arteries. That’s the cholesterol you want to keep “down.”MORE FROM SELF: How Tiffani Thiessen Lost 45 PoundsThen there’s the “good” cholesterol, called HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which travels in your bloodstream and removes the bad cholesterol. You can also be genetically predisposed to having low levels of HDL; other causes, according to Jilbrin, include being overweight or obese, being sedentary, smoking, a high carb intake, having type 2 diabetes and certain drugs, including beta blockers and steroids.And why should you be worried about any of this? Heart disease — which, no, you’re not too young to worry about. According to Jilbrin, “Arterial plaque can start forming in young adulthood, even in childhood.”Uh oh. She continues: “And trying to fix it once you’ve had a heart attack or show signs of heart disease never reduces your risk like you would have if you’d taken care of the problem earlier.”MORE: One-Minute Moves from Jillian MichaelsJilbrin says that the most important type of foods to eat to keep your cholesterol levels healthy are “viscous fibers.” Sounds … gross? Don’t worry, they’re actually tasty. Here’s a list of some yummy viscous fibers:
- Oat bran
- Ground psyllium seeds
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
- Brussels sprouts
Viscous fibers work, Jilbrin explains, for two reasons: First, they trap some of the fat and cholesterol from your diet, sending it out of the body before it can be absorbed.Second: “Your body uses bile acids, made from cholesterol, to break down the fat you eat, so it can be absorbed in the intestines,” Jilbrin explains. “Once the bile acid is secreted in the intestine and does its work breaking down fat, most of the bile acids are reabsorbed.” Are you with us so far? “But viscous fibers block some of that reabsorption, so, in order to create more bile acid, the body draws from cholesterol in the blood, thus lowering LDL (the “bad” cholesterol).”Almonds, while not viscous fibers, are also good to eat, notes Jilbrin, because they contain a monounsaturated fat and a plant sterol, both of which lower LDL.Of course — it’s not just what you eat. Maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding saturated fats and staying active, says Jilbrin, are also super important to keeping your cholesterol levels — and your heart — healthy.MORE: 6 Secrets to Firing Up Your MetabolismFor daily health tips follow SELF on Facebook and Twitter.Get SELF on your iPad and Kindle Fire!