Over 1 in 6 Americans have high cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease which is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the U.S. That is one of the many reasons why every September is National Cholesterol Education Month.
Let’s first answer the question “What is cholesterol and why is it important?” Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is made in the liver and found in food. It is an important part of the body’s cells needed for health, but it can be dangerous at high levels. When there is too much cholesterol it can build up on the walls of blood vessels, leading to narrowing of the vessel and blockage of blood flow, possibly leading to a heart attack or stroke.
After understanding the risks caused by high cholesterol, it is important to ask, “What can I do to prevent high cholesterol?” High cholesterol does not cause symptoms and is caused by both things we can control (diet, lack of exercise, being overweight) and things we can’t control (genetics). The first step to controlling your cholesterol is discussing these factors with your doctor and, if appropriate, having your cholesterol levels checked.
Your health care provider will check the levels of a few different kinds of cholesterol in your blood:
- The type of cholesterol that clogs the arteries is low density lipoproteins (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol. ideally your LDL score would be <130 goal=”” varies=”” by=”” risk=”” li=””>
- Another type of cholesterol, high density lipoproteins (HDL), helps to remove LDL from the blood stream. This is “good” cholesterol and its score should be >40.
- A third type, triglycerides, is a type of fat that is in the blood stream and stored in fat cells throughout the body. This is also “bad” and the score should be <150.
The next step in managing high cholesterol is making changes to your lifestyle. These include eating a low fat diet (<35% of calories should come from fat), and eating plenty of fiber. Not all fat is bad, however. Unsaturated (but not trans) fats may lower your LDL and raise your HDL. It is also important to maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly.
Unsaturated Fats: Avocados, Olive Oil, Peanut Oil
High Fiber: Whole grain bread/cereals, dried fruits, vegetables, legumes
Sometimes these lifestyle changes are not enough. If that is the case, there are medications that can help lower your cholesterol. Your doctor can discuss how to make these healthy lifestyle changes and if medication is needed.