Approximately 38% of Americans have high cholesterol. Having high cholesterol puts you at risk for heart attack, stroke, and heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. While the health implications of high cholesterol are widely known, there is also false information floating around that may prohibit you from improving your health.
The topics covered in this blog include:
- What is cholesterol?
- What causes high cholesterol?
- Effects of high cholesterol
- How do you know you have high cholesterol?
- How to reduce cholesterol
- Cholesterol Truths: 5 common myths debunked
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that’s found in our bodies. It plays a role in the production of hormones and vitamin D and in the digestion of food. Our bodies are able to produce cholesterol. Cholesterol is also present in animal-based food products, such as meats and eggs.
There are two main types of cholesterol – LDL and HDL. LDL stands for low density lipoprotein and is also referred to as your “bad” cholesterol. Having a high LDL increases your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
HDL stands for high density lipoprotein. This is more commonly referred to as your “good” cholesterol. HDL takes LDL from your arteries to your liver so that the liver can get rid of it. Having a high HDL reduces your risk of heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.
What Causes High Cholesterol?
Eating Foods High in Saturated and Trans Fats
Regular consumption of foods high in saturated fat and trans fat can increase your chances of having high cholesterol. These foods are also high in cholesterol.
- Examples of foods high in saturated fat are whole milk dairy products, baked goods, animal meats such as beef or pork, fried food, and coconut.
- Foods high in trans fat include baked goods, margarine, vegetable shortening (lard), fried foods, and processed foods. Trans fats are artificial, resulting from food processing.
Being a smoker increases your chances of having high cholesterol by increasing your LDL while decreasing your HDL. Cigarette smoke deposits on the artery walls, contributing to narrowing. It also contains a substance that prevents the removal of LDL by HDL.
Lack of exercise can decrease your HDL. Regular physical activity helps your body to produce HDL. Living a sedentary lifestyle can decrease your HDL production, therefore, leading to an increase of LDL.
If you have a family history of high cholesterol, called familial hypercholesterolemia, then it will be more difficult for you to lower your cholesterol.
Effects of High Cholesterol
When you have a high consumption of foods or have lifestyle factors that contribute to high cholesterol, then the cholesterol, along with other substances, deposits itself on the walls of your arteries. These deposits are called plaque and lead to a condition called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is narrowing of the arteries caused by cholesterol plaque buildup. It is a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and heart disease.
How Do You Know You Have High Cholesterol?
Having high cholesterol is asymptomatic, meaning there are no symptoms.
High cholesterol is usually diagnosed by a blood test. Your doctor may do a variety of tests to determine your risk. These tests and their healthy ranges are:
- HDL: More than 50 mg/dL
- LDL: Less than 100 mg/dL
- Total Cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL
- Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL
How to Reduce Cholesterol
Your doctor may prescribe you statins. Statins are medications that slow down the amount of cholesterol that’s produced by your liver by blocking an enzyme that’s needed to make cholesterol. This, in turn, helps lower your LDL and increase your HDL. This also decreases the cholesterol plaques on the walls of your arteries, lowering your risk of heart disease.
Decrease Foods High in Saturated Fat and Trans Fat
Limit your intake of foods high in saturated fat and trans fat. These foods can increase your LDL while decreasing your HDL.
Examples of foods high in saturated fat and trans fat include baked goods, fried foods, and processed foods. It is recommended to consume no more than 50 grams of saturated fat per day, or no more than 10% of your calories. Limit your intake of foods with trans fat as much as possible.
Increase Foods High in Unsaturated Fat
Unsaturated fat increases your HDL while lowering your LDL. They also help to lower your blood pressure.. There are two types of unsaturated fat: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Foods that are good sources of monounsaturated fats are:
- Canola oil
- Olive oil
- Peanut oil
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
Foods that are good sources of polyunsaturated fats are:
- Flax seeds
- Sunflower seeds
It is recommended to eat 2-3 servings of fatty fish per week and 4 servings of nuts and seeds per week.
Increase Foods High in Fiber
Fiber helps to remove LDL and plaque from the arteries so that they can be removed from the body. Sources of fiber are fruits, vegetables, grain products, beans, and lentils.
Eat less meat by incorporating more plant-based products into your diet. Aim for at least five servings per day of fruits and vegetables. When choosing grain products, make at least half of them whole grains.
Engage in Physical Activity
Engage in 180 minutes per week, or 30 minutes per day, of physical activity. Physical activity helps your body to produce more HDL. The best exercises to do are cardio. However, you don’t have to break a sweat and it all doesn’t have to be done in one session in order to reap the benefits. Consider beginning with two 15-minute walks per day. Increase the intensity and duration of your exercise as you become stronger.
If you smoke cigarettes, consider quitting smoking or at the very least reducing how much you smoke. Smoking damages your arteries. This makes it easier for cholesterol to collect on the artery walls, leading to thickening of your arteries and, eventually, blocked arteries. Quitting smoking will reduce plaque formation on the artery walls and allow your LDL to decrease.
Cholesterol Truths: 5 Common Myths Debunked
Beware of myths about cholesterol and other health topics. Believing these myths may slow down your journey towards improving your health. It is best to get your information from reputable sources.
Below are 5 common myths about high cholesterol.
Myth 1: “I would be able to feel it if I had high cholesterol.”
High cholesterol is usually diagnosed by a blood test. Many people do not know they have high cholesterol until their blood is tested by their doctor or during a routine checkup. High cholesterol is asymptomatic, meaning you may not experience any symptoms. If you experience any symptoms that cause you to go to the emergency room, such as chest pains, then your cholesterol levels and narrowing of your arteries has already advanced.
Myth 2: “Eating foods with a lot of cholesterol will not make my cholesterol go up.”
Eating foods that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol increase your chances for having high cholesterol.
Myth 3: “I can’t do anything to change my cholesterol levels.”
High cholesterol levels can be treated or managed with diet and lifestyle changes. Consume fish 2-3 times per week. Eat nuts and seeds 4 servings per week. Decrease your intake of foods that are high in saturated fat. Your doctor may also prescribe you medication to help lower your cholesterol level.
Myth 4: “I am a healthy weight, so I can’t have high cholesterol.”
High cholesterol is not dependent on how much you weigh. You can be of healthy weight and have high cholesterol. Your risk of having high cholesterol is dependent on your diet and lifestyle and family history.
Myth 5: “I can’t have eggs if I have high cholesterol.”
Eggs are a natural source of cholesterol. However, the benefits outweigh the risks.
One egg contains 6 grams of protein. Eggs are a good source of Iron, Selenium, Vitamin B2, and contain smaller amounts of other vitamins and minerals such as Phosphorus, Vitamin E, Calcium, and Zinc. Most of the nutrition found in an egg is present in the egg yolk. Eggs help to raise your HDL, even though they contain 1.6 grams of saturated fat.
Cholesterol is a substance that’s needed to perform certain functions in our bodies. Consuming an unhealthy diet and engaging in certain lifestyles can increase your chances of having high cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Changing your diet and lifestyle can greatly improve your health.