Diet and exercise are the master keys to unlocking a healthy lifestyle and positively impact many medical conditions, including those caused by high cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol is an essential fat the cells in our bodies need. Some cholesterol is created by the liver and others come from the foods we eat. The two main components of cholesterol are high-density lipoproteins (HDL, good cholesterol) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL, bad cholesterol). Think of LDL cholesterol as a microscopic blob of fat that sticks to artery walls. LDL buildup can lead to clogged arteries and increase the risk for heart attacks and strokes.

A heart-healthy diet consisting of lean proteins and fiber, along with regular exercise, can help lower bad cholesterol levels. Incorporate a few of the following foods into your diet to help reduce the risks associated with bad cholesterol.

High-fiber foods

Oatmeal, eggplant, apples, pears, grapes and kidney beans are just a few of the high and soluble fiber foods that may help reduce LDL cholesterol. The fiber found in these foods, called pectin, can help reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the bloodstream.

Nuts

Walnuts, almonds and other tree nuts may improve blood cholesterol with their mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Make sure the nuts are unsalted. Nuts tend to be high in calories, so try not to overindulge. Use walnuts in place of cheese and croutons on your next salad.

Avocados

The monounsaturated fatty acids in avocados are touted for improving LDL levels, especially in people who struggle with maintaining a healthy weight. Think outside the guacamole and add avocado slices to salads, sandwiches or with other raw vegetables like cucumbers.

Dark chocolate

With its antioxidant properties, dark chocolate may help decrease oxidation in the blood, reducing the risk of LDL. The flavanols in chocolate also impact vascular health by potentially lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and reducing the risk of clotting. Like with everything, moderation is the key. Look on the label of whatever you buy and stick to the serving size, typically around 1.5 to 3 ounces. Let the cacao be your guide. Bars of at least 70 percent cacao or higher will have a greater concentrate of antioxidants.

Tea

Green and black teas are known for their antioxidant properties, but studies have shown they may also help lower total cholesterol and raise HDL levels. The polyphenols in green tea may also help keep cholesterol from being absorbed in the intestine, allowing the body to get rid of cholesterol.

Spinach

This green leafy vegetable is packed with lutein, a pigment shown to protect the arteries from cholesterol accumulation. A half cup added to a salad or smoothie is a good start.

Cranberries

Known for helping with urinary tract infections, cranberries may also help lower total and LDL cholesterol. The compounds in the berries help reduce the adherence of cholesterol on artery walls. Try adding dried cranberries to salads and smoothies.