(Baptist Health) – We all need some cholesterol from what we eat to make our bodies work properly. But finding a healthy balance is important. Choosing heart-healthy foods can help lower bad cholesterol (which sticks to artery walls and can narrow or block them) and raise good cholesterol (which helps ferry bad cholesterol back to your liver, where it can be removed from your body).

But which heart-healthy habits are best? The American Heart Association suggests keeping these seven habits in mind when choosing your meals:

1. Include lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. They can increase cholesterol-lowering compounds in your diet.

2. Choose low-fat dairy options. Whole-fat dairy is high in cholesterol, so opt for low-fat or fat-free versions of your favorite dairy foods, like milk, yogurt and cheese.

3. If you eat poultry, remove the skin and extra fat before eating it. This cuts down on saturated fat, a main source of cholesterol in foods. You can keep meat moist by basting it with fruit juice or a marinade made with heart-healthy oils.

4. Bake or broil fish and seafood instead of frying it. And choose fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, which can raise your good cholesterol levels.

5. Choose healthier cooking oils. Go for vegetable oils instead of solid fats like butter, bacon grease, lard or coconut oil.

6. Add legumes (beans and peas) and unsalted nuts to your meals and snacks. Legumes contain soluble fiber, which helps your digestive tract avoid absorbing cholesterol. And in moderation, nuts are a source of healthy fats.

7. Pick water instead of sugar-sweetened drinks. Sugary drinks can lower good cholesterol and raise triglycerides, another type of fat in the blood.

Small changes lead to big results

If that list seems like a lot to change at once, pick one habit at a time to work on. Then when you’ve got it down, move on to the next one. Along with other heart-healthy habits like staying active and watching your weight, healthy eating can help you make a real difference in your cholesterol numbers.

If diet and exercise alone aren’t enough to lower your cholesterol, medications, such as statins, may be an option. Learn the facts about how statins help lower cholesterol.