What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a common, soft, fat-like, waxy substance that exists in the blood and in the cells. It is supposed to be there. It is used in making cell membranes, certain hormones, and in other uses. But, like many things, too much of something is not always a good thing.
You get cholesterol in two ways. Your body makes some of it, and the rest comes from cholesterol in animal products that you eat, such as meats, poultry, fish, eggs, butter, cheese and whole milk. Food from plants - like fruits, vegetables and cereals - doesn't have cholesterol. Some foods that don't contain animal products may contain trans-fats, which cause your body to make more cholesterol. Foods with saturated fats also cause the body to make more cholesterol.
Cholesterol and other fats can't dissolve in the blood. They have to be transported to and from the cells by special carriers called lipoproteins. There are two kinds that you need to know about. Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, is known as the "bad" cholesterol. Too much LDL cholesterol can clog your arteries, increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke. High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is known as the "good" cholesterol. Your body makes HDL cholesterol for your protection. It carries cholesterol away from your arteries. Studies suggest that high levels of HDL cholesterol reduce your risk of heart attack.
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While there are many tests that can be done to check blood lipid (fat) levels, one of the more common combinations is to test total cholesterol and HDLs (good cholesterol). It is recommended that you keep your total cholesterol below 200 for the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Most doctors will not even mention your cholesterol level unless it is above 240. If you find your total cholesterol between 200-239, now is the time to make some lifestyle changes to prevent your cholesterol from entering into the high range.
It is good to have your HDLs, or the good cholesterol, as high as possible. It is recommended that your HDL level be above 40. HDLs are so beneficial, that if your level is greater than 60 mg/dl, you are protected enough to subtract a risk factor (such as a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, etc.) from your list of risks for cardiovascular disease!
Another number you may receive from your cholesterol test is the Total/HDL ratio. This number tells you the ratio of HDL to the total amount of cholesterol in your blood. It is recommended that this number be kept below 5, while ideal is 3.5 or less. For example, if your total cholesterol is 200 and your HDLs are 50, you have a ratio of 4.
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There are a number of treatment options available that range from nutritional changes to cholesterol lowering medications. Often, the best solution is the simplest one. Since one of the most common causes of high cholesterol is eating a lot of high fat/cholesterol foods, simply changing your diet can be very effective.
You can work on lowering your blood cholesterol by eating more foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Here are some simple daily guidelines:
- Watch your caloric intake by eating a wide variety of foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
- Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
- Eat six or more servings of cereals, breads, pasta and other whole-grain products.
- Eat fish, poultry without skin and leaner cuts of meat instead of fatty ones.
- Eat fat-free or 1% milk dairy products rather than whole-milk dairy products.
- Enjoy 30-60 minutes of vigorous activities on most (or all) days of the week.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
Since HDLs are so beneficial, increasing them should be a focus for every person, regardless of total cholesterol levels. More vigorous exercise can raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels and will improve the overall fitness of your heart. This kind of activity is called "aerobic" and includes jogging, swimming, jumping rope, or brisk walking or bicycling.
Keep in mind that sometimes your family history (genetics) will result in both activity and nutrition being insufficient. At that point your doctor may put you on medications to lower your cholesterol. Work with your physician on what will be best for you.
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- To lower your blood cholesterol through diet, eat fewer foods high in saturated fat, total fat, and cholesterol.
- The total fat in your diet should average no more than 30 percent of your daily calories.
- Cholesterol should be held below 300 milligrams per day.
- If you follow these guidelines for about 6 months and your blood cholesterol does not drop to a goal level set by you and your doctor, you may need to cut back even more on saturated fat and cholesterol.
- Choose fish, poultry, and lean cuts of meat and remove the fat and skin before eating. Eat no more than about 6 ounces per day.
- Broil, bake, roast, or poach foods rather than frying them.
- Cut down on high fat processed meats including sausage, bacon, and cold cuts such as salami and bologna.
- Limit organ meats such as liver, kidney, and brains.
- Use skimmed or low-fat milk and cheeses, and low or non-fat yogurt.
- Instead of butter, use liquid or soft margarine or vegetable oils high in unsaturated fats.
- Use all fats and oils sparingly.
- Eat egg yolks only in moderation. Egg whites contain no fat or cholesterol and can be eaten often.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (5 a day is recommended), as well as cereals, breads, rice, and pasta made from enriched or whole grains (such as rye bread or whole wheat spaghetti).
- Many packaged and processed foods are high in saturated fats. Get in the habit of reading food labels. Look for the "Nutrition Facts" on the label and choose products that are lowest in fat. Also read product labels for cholesterol content.