While many medications can be helpful for lowering cholesterol, diet and exercise are always a good place to start. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

You’ve probably heard someone decline a dessert or an extra helping of bacon by saying, “No thanks. I’m trying to watch my cholesterol.”

But what is cholesterol? And why does it need watching?

It’s a waxy, fat-like substance found in each of our body’s cells.

It gives our cell walls elasticity and it’s involved in synthesizing many important substances, such as hormones, vitamin D and the bile necessary for digesting fats.

Your cholesterol level is an important factor in determining your risk of developing conditions such as atherosclerosis—hardening of the arteries—and cardiovascular disease.

When it comes to actual levels of cholesterol, the right amount is good—but too much or too little is bad news.

Cholesterol comes in two varieties, HDL and LDL.

HDL is good cholesterol. You want to keep it at high levels, at about 60 milligrams per deciliter, or mg/dL, or higher.

LDL cholesterol is bad cholesterol. You should aim to keep its levels low, at 100 mg/dL or lower.

The good and the bad

LDL, which stands for low-density lipoprotein, carries cholesterol through the bloodstream and deposits it into blood vessel walls.

HDL, on the other hand, is a high-density lipoprotein that sponges up cholesterol from the blood vessels and moves it to the liver, where it gets deposited for disposal.

Like an undisciplined toddler running down a hallway and leaving toys everywhere, LDL flows through our blood vessels, leaving a path of cholesterol in its wake.

Like a responsible parent, HDL follows along behind, picking up cholesterol and clearing the blood vessels.

Just as we tend to struggle in our everyday lives when our paths fill up with obstacles, our circulatory systems struggle when there’s too much cholesterol in our blood vessels.

That’s why it’s important to keep your HDL and LDL levels balanced.

For women, the optimal cholesterol ratio—found by dividing total cholesterol level by HDL level—is between 3.5 and 1.

To increase your HDL level and lower your LDL level, try these five approaches:

1. Eat more fiber

Consuming more fiber—especially soluble fiber—can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels. Good sources of fiber include carrots, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, onions, artichoke, bananas, berries, apples and pears.

Some good fiber sources? Legumes such as kidney beans, as well as whole grains (quinoa, oats and barley) and nuts and seeds.

One caveat: If you’ve been eating a low-fiber diet—most Americans do—you can increase your fiber intake slowly to avoid feeling bloating or constipated. Slowly increase by 5 grams a week until you reach the USDA-recommended 25-30 grams per day.

2. Exercise more

Becoming more physically active is an excellent way to lower LDL cholesterol. Research shows that high-intensity aerobic exercise is particularly effective.

So hit that stationary bike, take up running, sign up for a high-intensity interval class or give Zumba a try. If you haven’t been active in a while, remember to take it slow. Walk, run or ride around the block first, then gradually build up to longer periods of aerobic exercise.

3. Lose weight

Dropping excess pounds is also beneficial when it comes to lowering LDL cholesterol. In fact, weight loss can reduce LDL while at the same time increasing HDL. It’s the ratio between the two that appears to be most crucial for maintaining good cardiovascular health.

4. Cut back on unhealthy habits

Quitting smoking can significantly reduce LDL cholesterol. Same goes for cutting back on consuming saturated fats, trans fats, sugar and alcohol.

If you have a habit of noshing on ready-made baked goods or indulging in sugary cocktails, try to reduce your intake and treat yourself to some better-for-you alternatives, like carrots and hummus or a glass of water.

5. Increase consumption of omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids don’t affect LDL cholesterol but they have been shown to increase HDL cholesterol and lower blood pressure.

Good sources of omega-3 include wild-caught salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies and caviar.

If you’re not into seafood, try supplementing your diet with a daily tablespoon of cod liver oil or a fish oil pill.

While many medications can be helpful for lowering cholesterol, diet and exercise are always a good place to start. Most people can naturally bring their LDL and HDL cholesterol within healthy levels through diet and exercise, without spending money on a prescription or dealing with undesirable side effects.