Cholesterol: What the Numbers Really Mean
Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is a balancing act: the right approach to diet, exercise, and, at times, medication.
You may look and feel fine. But if your cholesterol is high, then your heart health -- and therefore your overall health -- are at risk.
"Cholesterol is a waxy-like substance made in the liver, and is also derived from the foods we eat. It comes in two forms: LDL, the bad cholesterol, and HDL, the good cholesterol," says Michael Schloss, MD, assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and co-director of the NYU Lipid Treatment Program.
LDL is considered bad, Schloss says, because it builds up inside artery walls, leading to clot formation, inflammation, and, eventually, heart disease. HDL, on the other hand, transports LDL out of the blood vessels and into the liver, where it can be processed and eliminated. Along with triglycerides, another form of blood fat, LDL and HDL form your total cholesterol count. Generally, when HDL is high and LDL is low, your body and your heart are healthier.
But what causes people to have unhealthy cholesterol numbers -- HDL that's too low or LDL that's too high? For some people, genetics is to blame. For others, the culprit is a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fat, which the body converts into cholesterol. For most, it's a combination of a genetic predisposition and a high-fat diet.
The Food You Eat
The usual suspects include foods high in animal fat, such as beef, veal, lamb, pork, and whole-milk dairy products. Foods containing tropical oils, such as palm, kernel, and coconut, are also bad for cholesterol, since they contain a lot of saturated fats. Whether foods high in cholesterol -- such as egg yolks and shrimp -- cause problems remains debatable.
However, many doctors err on the side of caution and suggest cutting back or eliminating these foods if cholesterol is high. The American Heart Association (AHA) says that for people with normal cholesterol levels, keeping total dietary cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams daily is adequate. For folks with high LDL, the AHA recommends keeping cholesterol intake under 200 milligrams a day
You can lower your blood cholesterol levels by modifying your diet. Reducing your intake of saturated fat and increasing foods high in soluble fiber -- such as oatmeal, beans, peas, barley, citrus fruits, strawberries, and brussels sprouts -- reduces cholesterol by binding to the cholesterol in your intestines so that the body excretes it. An added benefit: These foods are typically low in fat and cholesterol and packed with healthy nutrients.
Losing as few as 10 pounds is often enough to start seeing an improvement in cholesterol. Excess weight raises LDL cholesterol and may even lower HDL cholesterol.
Finally, since smoking reduces HDL, quitting can boost heart health. Studies show that once you stop smoking, your HDL rises within months (and sometimes weeks) to the levels of nonsmokers.