When it comes to understanding your cholesterol levels, it is important to make sense of the numbers themselves, what risks they pose, and how to control your cholesterol levels through lifestyle modifications.
Cholesterol is a fatty, wax-like substance that is found in cells throughout the body. It is produced by our body and also absorbed from the foods we eat. Cholesterol helps our body with digestion, hormone and Vitamin D production, and cell structure.
Total blood cholesterol level is based on two different components – a “good” cholesterol and a “bad” one. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad” cholesterol that collects on the artery walls and increases the risk for heart disease. White blood cells also attempt to absorb the LDL, oxidizing it, and creating toxins in the body. “Good” cholesterol, or HDL (high density lipoprotein) functions to remove LDL from the bloodstream, transporting it for reprocessing in the liver. When the LDL number is high and the HDL number is low, it is what is commonly called “high cholesterol.”
There are multiple reasons individuals have high cholesterol. Some causes are outside our span of control, such as genetics – our genes often determine how much cholesterol our body makes, which is why family health history is important. Age and gender can also impact cholesterol levels. Our cholesterol typically rises as we age and women may experience rising LDL levels after menopause. Diabetes, liver or kidney disease, hypothyroidism, the use of certain drugs, and even pregnancy can raise LDL cholesterol or inhibit HDL levels. In cases like these, drug therapy is often needed to reach cholesterol levels closer to a healthy level.
Other factors, within our span of control, can contribute to unhealthy cholesterol levels. Obesity, inactivity, tobacco use, and an unhealthy diet are common culprits in these cases. Lifestyle modification is important in controlling these factors and often reducing high cholesterol.
For those who do not have underlying health concerns, the primary defenses against high cholesterol are exercise, weight control, avoiding foods high in saturated fat and limiting tobacco use. Tobacco triples the risk of dying from heart disease and inhibits the development of HDL, your “good” cholesterol.
Foods high in saturated fat like animal products, butter, cream, and cheese contain dietary cholesterol that is absorbed into the bloodstream. The American Heart Association recommends reducing saturated fat to no more than 5-6% of total daily calories for those trying to reduce their cholesterol levels.
Increased exercise benefits cholesterol levels by increasing blood flow in the body, thus boosting HDL levels and reducing the risk of obesity. To lower your cholesterol, the American Heart Association recommends an average of 40 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity aerobic activity 3-4 times a week.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that will be released this Fall will show an overall shift regarding the type of foods people should be eating to maintain good health. Past guidelines focused on the percentages of macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins) a person should consume. This led to an over-consumption of carbohydrates, which led to increased lipid problems. The new dietary guidelines will recommend a diet of less processed foods, with an emphasis on fish, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and lean protein.
A lifestyle that includes a healthy diet, plenty of exercise and the avoidance of tobacco can help people maintain healthy cholesterol levels and limit the risk of cardiovascular disease.
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Published June 14, 2019