Have you been diagnosed with high cholesterol? Is lowering your cholesterol a goal?
The first step is to find out: What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made in the liver and other cells and found in certain foods, such as food from animals, like dairy products, eggs, and meat. The body needs some cholesterol in order to function properly. Its cell walls, or membranes, need cholesterol in order to produce hormones, vitamin D, and the bile acids that help to digest fat. But the body needs only a limited amount of cholesterol to meet its needs. When too much is present health problems such as heart disease may develop.
Cholesterol and Heart Disease
When too much cholesterol is present, plaque (a thick, hard deposit) may form in the body’s arteries narrowing the space for blood to flow to the heart. Over time, this buildup causes atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) which can lead to heart disease.When not enough oxygen-carrying blood reaches the heart chest pain — called angina — can result. If the blood supply to a portion of the heart is completely cut off by total blockage of a coronary artery, the result is a heart attack. This is usually due to a sudden closure from a blood clot forming on top of a previous narrowing.
Types of Cholesterol
Cholesterol travels through the blood attached to a protein — this cholesterol-protein package is called a lipoprotein. Lipoproteins are classified as high density, low density, or very low density, depending on how much protein there is in relation to fat.
- Low density lipoproteins (LDL): LDL, also called “bad” cholesterol, can cause buildup of plaque on the walls of arteries. The more LDL there is in the blood, the greater the risk of heart disease.
- High density lipoproteins (HDL): HDL, also called “good” cholesterol, helps the body get rid of bad cholesterol in the blood. The higher the level of HDL cholesterol, the better. If levels of HDL are low, the risk of heart disease increases.
- Very low density lipoproteins (VLDL): VLDL is similar to LDL cholesterol in that it contains mostly fat and not much protein.
- Triglycerides: Triglycerides are another type of fat that is carried in the blood by very low density lipoproteins. Excess calories, alcohol, or sugar in the body are converted into triglycerides and stored in fat cells throughout the body.
What Factors Affect Cholesterol Levels?
A variety of factors can affect cholesterol levels. They include:
- Diet. Saturated fat and cholesterol in the food you eat increase cholesterol levels. Try to reduce the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet.
- Weight. In addition to being a risk factor for heart disease, being overweight can also increase cholesterol. Losing weight can help lower your LDL and total cholesterol levels, as well as increase HDL cholesterol.
- Exercise. Regular exercise can lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol. You should try to be physically active for at least 30 minutes on most days.
- Age and Gender. As we get older, cholesterol levels rise. Before menopause, women tend to have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. After menopause, however, women’s LDL levels tend to rise.
- Diabetes. Poorly controlled diabetes increases cholesterol levels. With improvements in control, cholesterol levels can fall.
- Heredity. Your genes partly determine how much cholesterol the body makes. High blood cholesterol can run in families.
- Other causes. Certain medications and medical conditions can cause high cholesterol.
How Much Cholesterol Is Too Much?
Everyone over the age of 20 should get their cholesterol levels measured at least once every five years. When being tested, your doctor may recommend a non-fasting cholesterol test or a fasting cholesterol test. A non-fasting cholesterol test will show total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. A fasting cholesterol test, called a lipid profile or a lipoprotein analysis, will measure your LDL, HDL, and total cholesterol. It will also measure triglycerides. Your doctor may start with a non-fasting cholesterol test and then recommend a lipid profile, based on the results. Doctors recommend that total cholesterol stay below 200. Here is the breakdown:
|Less than 200||Desirable|
|200 – 239||Borderline High|
|240 and above||High|
Your LDL, HDL, and triglyceride levels are important as well.
How to Raise Good Cholesterol and Lower Bad Cholesterol
Raising High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL)
Lowering your bad cholesterol 10 percent can decrease your chance of a heart attack or stroke by 20 percent, Harvard Medical School says. Bad cholesterol can collect on and under artery walls and cause blood blockages, which can lead to heart disease. With discipline, you can take steps to raise your good HDL cholesterol and lower bad LDL cholesterol. Ask your doctor for a cholesterol blood test. Your doctor may suggest changes in lifestyle or diet if your HDL measures less than 60 mg/dL.
- HDL, or high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, acts as the body’s waste-disposal system in the blood. HSL combs through blood for bad cholesterol, LDL, and flushes it out to your liver for disposal. HDL lowers inflammation throughout the body and may even help against Alzheimer’s. That’s why you want lots of HDL and less LDL.
- Set a target for your good HDL. Cholesterol is measured in milligrams per deciliter of blood. Men whose levels are between 40 and 60 mg/dL and women between 50 and 60 mg/dL are considered at risk for heart disease.
Lose weight if you are overweight. If you lose 2.7 kg you can increase the good HDL that removes bad low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, according to Mayo Clinic. Losing weight involves a combination of eating healthy and exercise. You can lose weight without doing both, but most successful weight loss regimens have both at their core.
- Eat fewer calories than your body burns during the day. It takes 3,500 calories to lose ½ kg. That means that if you consume 2,000 calories during the day, you will need to burn 5,500 calories in order to lose ½ kg. Most people only burn a fraction of a kilogram per day.
- Don’t starve yourself. Losing weight is all about eating healthy foods, according to correct portions, at the right times. If you starve yourself, your body will prime itself for deprivation and begin to store fat, almost like a bear before hibernation. Eat well in the morning, and progressively less as the day wears on.
- Don’t expect to lose all your weight immediately. Weight loss takes time. If you shed a couple pounds a week, consider yourself very successful. Most people who try to lose serious weight get discouraged and quit just as the real battle begins because they don’t see real results. Stay in the fight for the long haul.
Exercise. Increase your heart rate for at least a half hour 5 times a week by doing things like playing basketball, raking, walking, running, bicycling or swimming. Within 2 months you can increase HDL by as much as 5 percent (according to the Mayo Clinic).
- If you have trouble finding time to exercise, break your exercise into 3, 10-minute sessions. At work, take a break and go for a brisk walk for 10 minutes before your lunch break and during or after lunch and when you get home.
- If you want to get the most out of your exercise (because you’re an efficiency hawk), try interval training. Interval training involves short bursts of furious activity followed by longer periods of lower activity. Try running around the track at full speed for one lap, followed by three laps of jogging.
Choose healthier fats. In a good diet, 25 to 35 percent of calories come from fats; less than 7 percent should be saturated. There is one type of fats in particular that is good for HDL and generally healthy for your cholesterol and heart health:Monounsaturated fats. In an ideal world, most of your fats should come from this group of fats, as they lower overall cholesterol but maintain HDL. Monounsaturated fats include:
Drink at most one or two alcoholic beverages per day. Moderate alcohol consumption has been linked to lower rates of heart disease, interestingly enough. A drink or two may improve your HDL. Women and people over 65 years should have just 1 drink per day, men 2 drinks per day. Mayo Clinic advises that people who don’t drink alcohol shouldn’t start.
- Drinking red wine, in particular, may help boost your HDL levels. Red wine contains a natural plant chemical called resveratrol, which can also lower your risk of inflammation and blood clotting, and has showed promising signs in tests on animals.
Quit smoking to boost HDL. Smoking lowers your HDL levels, as well as being generally unhealthy. Additionally, quitting smoking may make it easier to do the exercise necessary to lose excess weight.
Lowering Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL)
Ask your doctor if you should take medication to lower LDL. The ideal level of low-density lipoproteins is 100 to 129 mg/dL, although under 100 is even better. Your doctor may recommend drugs if your LDL level is at 160 or higher.
- Talk to your doctor about prescription niacin, a B vitamin. Prescription niacin has fewer side effects than over-the-counter niacin. In addition to lowering LDL, niacin may raise HDL.
- Your doctor may recommend you take fibrates. Commonly prescribed fibrates are gemfibrozil (Lopid) and fenofibrate (Lobifra and Tricor).
- Ask your doctor about taking statins to lower your cholesterol. Statins can help prevent your liver from making cholesterol and may spur your liver to absorb cholesterol built up on artery walls.
Eat certain foods to lower LDL.
- Consume oats, whole grains and high-fibre foods.
- Brazil nuts, almonds and walnuts may help lower LDL.
- Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, flax seed, flax seed oil and fish oil supplements can help lower LDL and raise HDL. Fatty fish include salmon, flounder, haddock, catfish, sardines, bluefish, herring, albacore tuna and anchovies.
- Eating substances called sterols and stanols may help. Sterols and stanols are in orange juice, some yoghurt drinks and some margarine formulated to help fight bad cholesterol. Food manufacturers are putting sterols and stanols into other food products, too.
Limit saturated fats and trans fats. Saturated and trans fats are the “bad” fats, and double-whammies at that: they lower your HDL and heighten your LDL. Replace saturated and trans fats with good fats (see above section) will help you lower your LDL levels.Saturated fats include:
- Lard, shortening
- Whipped cream
- Coconut and palm oil
Trans fats include:
- Partially hydrogenated oils
- Ramen noodles
- Fast food
Substitute water and green tea for high-calorie beverages. Water provides essential nutrients to organs and doesn’t contain any sugars that promote LDL. Green tea has substances that reduce bad cholesterol. Try staying away from the sugary or caffeinated (or both) drinks and stick with water or green tea. See our Green Tea Recipes for adventurous ways of using green tea.
Try the TLC diet. The TLC diet, which stands for Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes, is a diet designed to specifically lower LDL. As such, it may not help you lose weight, but it’s a good way of reaching a target LDL and staying there.
- Set your target calorie level. For men, the recommended daily value is 2,500, while for women the value is 1,800.
- Cut saturated fats to about 7% of total calorie consumption. Cut out most fatty dairy products like cheese and high-fat meats like salami.
- Eat less than 200 milligrams of dietary cholesterol a day.
- Eat mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins (skin-off poultry, soy products, fish), and low-fat dairy products.