Cholesterol 101

More than 102 million American adults have unhealthy cholesterol levels. Because there are no symptoms, many individuals with high cholesterol remain unaware that they carry a higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions.

September marks “National Cholesterol Education Month”, a month devoted to informing the public on how to monitor and manage healthy cholesterol levels. Many people have heard that they need to control their cholesterol levels, but are unsure what that really means.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance the liver naturally produces for daily function. It travels throughout the body in two forms: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). Levels of good and bad cholesterol vary based on a variety of factors, including lifestyle and diet.

  • “Bad” Cholesterol: LDL is known as the “bad” cholesterol because too much in the bloodstream can narrow and clog arteries, increasing the risk for heart disease, obesity and other chronic conditions. Foods with trans or saturated fats, including animal fats, full-fat dairy, butter and lard, may increase LDL levels.
  • “Good” Cholesterol: HDL is known as the “good” cholesterol because it carries LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, away from the arteries and back to the liver. There are heart healthy fats that can improve HDL including: avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, fish and foods that have monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Note that even healthy fats should be consumed in moderation.

What’s the Risk?

High cholesterol can develop as early as adolescence, depending on various lifestyle, environmental and genetic factors. In general, adults should aim to keep total cholesterol levels below 200 mg/dL, HDL levels. Optimal levels of HDL should be greater than 60 mg/dL for adults. Ideally, LDL should stay below 100 mg/dL.  Untreated, high cholesterol can lead to chronic, life-threatening conditions.

  • Heart Disease: Those with high cholesterol have about twice the risk of heart disease compared to people with lower levels. Stroke, heart attack and coronary heart disease are among the most common threats of high cholesterol.
  • Obesity: Body weight has a direct connection to cardiovascular risk factors, including high cholesterol. Losing five to 10 percent of weight can improve cholesterol levels significantly.
  • Type 2 Diabetes: The American Heart Association reports that there is a link between high cholesterol and insulin resistance, a precursor to Type 2 diabetes.

Treating High Cholesterol

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than half of adults with high cholesterol are taking the necessary steps to lower their levels. Although some of the risk factors are uncontrollable (age, race, genetics, gender, pre-existing conditions, etc.) there are many ways to increase HDL and lower LDL levels.

  • Improve Diet: A diet rich in grains, fibers, plant-based fats and lean proteins is crucial when treating high cholesterol. Avoiding high-sodium foods, fried foods and animal fats while swapping fatty oils like butter for olive oil are great for weight loss and managing high cholesterol.
  • Get Moving: Physical activity is an effective means of lowering bad cholesterol levels. Adults should maintain about 150 minutes of exercise a week, while children and adolescents are recommended a minimum of 60 minutes per day.
  • Quit Smoking: Cigarettes lower good cholesterol and significantly heighten the risk of heart disease. Studies also show that HDL levels tend to increase after a person quits.
  • Stay Consistent: Healthy adults are advised to check their cholesterol levels at least once every five years. Those managing high cholesterol should work with their primary health care provider to regularly assess their risk for cardiovascular disease and other chronic health conditions.

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Photo credit: Steven Depolo via Flickr

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  1. Thanks for sharing these helpful tips on cholesterol management! What are your thoughts on supplements to help support heart health such as CoQ10 and Omega-3?

    1. Hi Katelyn,
      Thanks so much for your kind words and question.
      As far as supplements go, I always like to remind people that they are called supplements because they are supplementing the diet. So ideally, we are getting what we need by choosing a healthy and nutrient dense diet. Also supplements do not have to be regulated by any entity. If you are going to take some, you want to make sure they are coming from a good company. Look for your supplements to be USP or NSF certified. As far as CoQ10, the research is not conclusive that it helps with heart health. With Omega-3s, I would recommend trying to get them from heart healthy fats. Try consuming fatty fish like salmon, halibut and mackerel 2-3 times per week. I hope this helps. Thanks again.

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