If you’ve joined the ranks of Americans who know their numbers, then you probably get your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol tested on a regular basis.

Maybe you’re already taking medication to lower your cholesterol, with the accompanying semi-annual blood tests to check the results. Among some friends and families, gloating rights go to the person who scores the lowest total cholesterol number, or maintains an even keel under the dreaded 200 mark.

Can You Cram for a Blood Test?

Cholesterol is a waxy, essential, fat-like substance, and your liver makes all you really need of it. We get more from animal sources like meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products. If your diet is high in trans fats, your liver will produce even more cholesterol.

If you’re worried about your cholesterol number, maybe you’ve thought about trying to bring it down the week before the test  — by giving up eggs or red meat, for example. A recent article in Consumer Reports had advice for those trying this strategy.

A reader inquired if a few days of healthy eating would positively affect the results of a cholesterol test. Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser, Mar­vin M. Lipman, M.D., said no. “It takes two to three months of healthy eating to see meaningful changes in LDL and HDL cho­les­ter­ol, or in your HbA1C, a measure of long-term blood sugar levels that doesn’t require fasting.”

The article also says that if your tests require fasting (your doctor will let you know if they do), you should stick to the plan: no food or drinks (other than water) for 9 to 12 hours. Cheating actually could make your blood sugar and triglyceride readings higher than they really are.

You should also avoid strenuous exercise for 12 to 24 hours before the test. Some evidence suggests that it can falsely increase HDL cholesterol levels.

Think Beyond the Numbers

Dr. Marc Itskowitz, director of the Center for Perioperative Medicine for the Allegheny Health Network, agrees that short term changes can’t improve blood test results. “Your cholesterol levels are largely affected by genetic factors,” he said. “But when numbers are high and there is no established vascular disease, we recommend a Mediterranean diet, weight loss and exercise.”

Dr. Itskowitz reminds us that the idea isn’t really to make your numbers look good. Physicians need accurate blood work to identify your level of heart-disease risk. If your numbers stay high over six months to a year, you may be put on cholesterol medication.

“Taking cholesterol medication doesn’t make you feel better. It lowers your risk of heart disease or stroke,” he said. “The new guidelines for prescribing cholesterol medication encourage us to look for heart disease, diabetes, or an LDL of 190 or greater. We consider age, family history, blood pressure and smoking habits.”

He added that further testing for heart disease — such as stress tests or cardiac catheterization — are usually only recommended when symptoms are present, like shortness of breath or chest pain.

Committing to a Healthier Lifestyle

You can support your health (and score better cholesterol numbers) by eating more fruits and vegetables every day, not just in the days before a blood test. They are rich in nutrients that reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and other chronic health problems.

How can you make time in a busy work week for healthy eating? Consider these tactics.

  • When pizza invades a lunch meeting, choose one slice of the veggie version and take an extra serving of salad (brought from home, if necessary).
  • Have a ready supply of grapes and cut-up celery, carrots and peppers, for example. Mindlessly munching on raw vegetables or fruit is as easy as mindlessly munching on potato chips, but infinitely better for your health. If you crave a dip or dressing, stick to hummus, which is low-fat and protein-rich.
  • Perk up a dull afternoon with an apple, clementine or tangerine. Sweet and juicy, they can replace packaged snacks from the vending machine and be just as, or even more, satisfying. Citrus fruit also comes with its own aromatherapy boost.
  • When donuts and home-baked goodies arrive at the office, take a small piece to silence sugar’s siren song without toppling your diet goals.
  • Visit a farmer’s market (check out the sidebar to find one close to home) to get your produce at its peak; you may discover better flavors or a veggie or fruit you haven’t tried before.
  • Not ready to make the big break to go meatless? Become a vegetarian for two meals a day and enjoy meat only at dinner.
  • If you typically dive into dessert immediately after a meal, try waiting 30 minutes before you indulge. Often, the craving for something sweet goes away once your system has a chance to metabolize what you’ve eaten at your meal.

All in all, it turns out that having good health is not merely a number on your patient record. It is an everyday approach that respects your body and its nutritional needs.