Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found your body and has several useful functions, including helping to build your body’s cells. Your cholesterol levels are an important measure of good heart health. Too much LDL, or Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, can build up within the walls of your blood vessels and narrow the passageways. Sometimes a clot can form and get stuck in the narrowed space, causing a heart attack or stroke. That is why LDL is known as the “bad” cholesterol.
People who have naturally higher levels of high-density level lipoprotein cholesterol, or HDL, are at a lower risk for heart attack and stroke. HDL picks up excess bad cholesterol in your blood and takes it back to your liver where it’s broken down and removed from your body. That is why HDL is known as the “good” cholesterol. Ideally, you want higher levels of HDL, and lower levels of LDL.
High cholesterol can develop in early childhood and adolescence, and your risk increases as your weight increases. More than 102 million American adults have a total cholesterol level at or above 240 mg/dl, which puts them at risk for heart disease. A desirable, TOTAL cholesterol level would be less than 170mg/dl, with the LDL (bad) cholesterol level being less than 110 mg/dl, and the HDL (good) cholesterol being 35 mg/dl or higher.
Lifestyle changes known to increase HDL, such as moving more, quitting smoking or improving your diet, have been shown to lower the risk of heart attacks. Besides helping you lose weight, increased physical activity can lower your triglycerides, the most common type of fat in your body, while increasing your HDL levels. Benefits can be seen with as little as 60 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise a week. Adjusting your diet to avoid trans fats, which increase LDL levels is also important. Foods prepared with shortening, such as cakes and cookies, often contain trans fats, as do most fried foods and some margarines. Limit saturated fat, found in meats and full-fat dairy products, as well. Eat more fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and whole grains as these foods help control cholesterol levels. *See list below for cholesterol lowering foods.
The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that adults aged 20 years or older have their cholesterol checked every 5 years. Your doctor can advise you if you need to have your cholesterol levels checked more often.
*Some foods that can lower cholesterol:
Legumes, avocados, nuts (especially almonds and walnuts), fatty fish (such as salmon and mackerel), whole grains (especially oats and barley), fruits and berries, dark chocolate and cocoa, garlic, vegetables, and extra virgin olive oil.