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Cholesterol: What You Need to Know

Since September is National Cholesterol Education month, we thought this was the perfect time to write about that all important part of our health. Let’s be honest, managing our cholesterol is crucial, but it’s a little complicated. It’s complicated because technically not all cholesterol is bad, and since there is good cholesterol that is just as important it can be difficult to know where you stand. In Health Journal VIII, we’re going to dive into cholesterol and talk about ways to help with bad cholesterol, keep good cholesterol high and provide other food tips that can help make a difference.

What is bad cholesterol and how to help prevent it?

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is known as bad cholesterol. High levels of LDL raise the risk of heart disease and stroke while also potentially building up on the walls of our blood vessels.

This buildup is known as plaque and as our blood vessels build up plaque over time, the inside of the vessels narrow. The narrowing of the blood vessels is potentially dangerous as it can block the flow of blood to and from your heart and other organs.

When blood flow to the heart is blocked it can cause angina (chest pain) or lead to a heart attack. Now as we have noted, bad cholesterol can be dangerous but there are ways to help keep the levels of LDL down.

  • Get tested: There are no major symptoms of high cholesterol that can alert you that a problem has arisen so it’s vitally important to get tested every 4 to 6 years or at your doctor’s discretion.
  • Healthy food choices: It is crucial to limit foods that are high in saturated fat since these contribute heavily to the buildup of bad cholesterol. It is best to choose foods that are naturally high in fiber or unsaturated fats. Some food recommendations include oats, beans, nuts, fruits and vegetables, and fish.
  • Be active: Keeping a consistent workout or activity regimen can be difficult with work, school schedules and children’s activities all rolled into one. But if you are looking to help lower bad cholesterol or keep it at a lower level, it is recommended that adults exercise for between 150 and 300 minutes per week. So if you break that down, an ideal schedule would have you physically active for 60 minutes, 5 days a week.
  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco: We know the dangers of smoking like lung cancer, but it also plays a role in damaging blood vessels that are vital in preserving our long-term health. In addition to damaging our blood vessels, smoking speeds up the hardening of our arteries, and dramatically increases ones risk of heart disease. If you don’t smoke, it’s a good idea not to start, but if you do, stopping now would greatly reduce your risk of heart disease among many other health benefits.
  • Know your family history: If high cholesterol runs in your family, it’s important to know since you may be at a higher risk. If this is the case, you should be tested for high cholesterol on a more consistent basis.

What is good cholesterol?

As we mentioned above there are two main types of cholesterol, commonly known as good and bad. We discussed bad cholesterol and how to prevent it but now we are going to discuss what good cholesterol is and how it works.

Good cholesterol is known as High-density lipoprotein (HDL) and it plays a pivotal role in managing your bad cholesterol. The role of HDL is similar to that of a vacuum cleaner because when it’s at a healthy level in your blood, it removes extra cholesterol and plaque buildup in your arteries and sends it to your liver. Your liver then takes the cholesterol and expels it from your body, ultimately helping reduce your risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

When it comes to HDL it is helpful to know what good levels are and since the American Heart Association recommends you get tested by the age of 20, it’s important to know even early on.

An ideal HDL level is 60 milligrams/deciliter (mg/dl) or above and it’s considered low if it’s below 40 mg/dl. It is recommended to aim for a healthy number between 40 and 60 mg/dl, but any number over 60 is optimal.

What foods should I eat and avoid?

Our diet plays a big role in our health and there are so many options out there depending on what your health needs are. The recommendations below are meant to help with potential high cholesterol but they may not be suitable for everyone. If you have high cholesterol, please discuss any major diet changes with your doctor and ask for their advice.

Foods to eat:
  • Olive oil
  • Beans & legumes
  • Whole grains
  • High-fiber fruit
  • Fatty fish
  • Flax
  • Nuts
  • Avocado
  • Soy
  • Red wine
Foods to avoid:
  • Cookies, cakes, donuts
  • Fried foods
  • Products containing hydrogenated oil
  • Buttered popcorn
  • Fatty beef
  • Poultry with skin
  • Lard and shortening

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