Cholesterol is a word that comes with lots of baggage. It conjures up images of clogged arteries and heart attacks, due to decades of medical advice about the dangers of high cholesterol levels. There’s no question that high cholesterol leads to heart disease, the number one killer of both men and women.
But there’s another side of cholesterol too. We need a certain amount of it for good health. It’s one of the lipids (“fats”) that moves through our bloodstreams to repair and build cell walls and to make certain hormones. One form of cholesterol, HDL (which stands for high-density lipoprotein), actually decreases heart disease risk because it cleans fat and bad cholesterol from our arteries, transporting it to the liver for removal from our bodies.
Too much blood cholesterol, particularly LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol) can result in plaques building up inside the arteries. Like gunk clogging a pipe, cholesterol can clog up arteries, even stopping blood flow if it’s bad enough. And, because every cell we have needs oxygen and blood is how oxygen is delivered to cells, clogged arteries leading to important organs like the heart are bad news indeed. Other parts of the body can be affected too. If lower limbs can’t get enough blood flow because of plaque-clogged arteries, gangrene is a possibility, and can result in the need for amputations.
But there are many things you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease and other problems caused by high cholesterol by making lifestyle changes. Here are some tips for keeping your cholesterol levels under control.
1. Get your cholesterol levels checked.
Over 100 million Americans (that’s one-third of the population) have high cholesterol, according to the American Heart Association. High cholesterol alone doesn’t cause symptoms, so it’s possible not to even know your cholesterol is high before you have serious problems. A simple blood test checks total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, and triglycerides, another form of fat that circulates in our arteries. The average adult over age 20 should have their cholesterol checked every 5 years. If your cholesterol levels are high, your doctor may advise you to have them checked more often.
2. Understand what the numbers mean.
Cholesterol levels are given in milligrams per deciliter, or mg/dL, and with your total cholesterol, the lower the number the better. Numbers more than 240 mg/dL are too high. Numbers from 200 to 240 are considered borderline high, and numbers under 200 are considered good. In addition to total cholesterol, your tests may include information on both good and bad cholesterol levels to get a more nuanced picture of your health situation. HDL, or good cholesterol levels should be 45 or higher. Levels for LDL (bad) cholesterol should be 130 or lower. But these are general guidelines, and what’s healthy for you will depend on your age, gender, and family history. Your doctor should elucidate what your particular numbers mean for you.
3. Change your eating habits.
To lower your cholesterol, eat fewer foods that are high in fat and cholesterol, which contribute to high blood cholesterol levels. High cholesterol foods are those foods made from animal products which include high levels of fat. Dietary experts recommend that no more than 30% of your calories each day should come from fats. Keep in mind, too, that some fats are better than others. Saturated fat is the worst kind, and is found mostly in animal foods like beef, pork, and dairy products. Saturated fat is the main dietary contributor to high blood cholesterol levels. On the other hand, polyunsaturated fats, which are found in soybeans and sunflower seeds, for example, and monounsaturated fats, found in olive, canola, and peanut oils, may actually help lower blood cholesterol levels when substituted for saturated fats in your diet. Avocados are another source of monounsaturated fats. Add more fiber, fish, fruits, and vegetables to your diet, and you can keep your arteries healthier. High fiber foods like oat bran, oatmeal, citrus fruits, and beans, can lower cholesterol levels. Oily fish, like salmon and mackerel, which contain beneficial omega 3 fatty acids, can lower triglyceride levels in your blood. Fruits and vegetables are also high in vitamins and low in calories, fat and cholesterol. You should avoid or limit organ meats, egg yolks, and whole milk dairy products, which have lots of cholesterol in them.
4. Quit smoking and lose excess weight.
Smoking and overeating, as well as physical inactivity, can contribute to high cholesterol levels. Smoking also damages the walls of your arteries, making it easier for fat to cling to them. Quitting smoking is one of the healthiest things you can do. So is losing excess weight and getting more physical activity. Half an hour of moderate exercise at least 3 times a week can help keep weight off, improve cholesterol levels, and reduce heart attack and stroke risk.
If diet and lifestyle changes aren’t enough to keep your cholesterol levels in check, then you may need to take medications to lower cholesterol levels. Your doctor can guide you on your many options for reducing cholesterol and enjoying the health benefits of lower cholesterol levels.