High cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for developing heart disease (the leading cause of death in the U.S.) or having a stroke (the fifth leading cause of death). In fact, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the higher your blood cholesterol level, the higher your risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack.
Even though we get supplemental amounts from our food, our liver actually produces all the cholesterol our bodies need. You can work toward gaining control of your cholesterol levels by incorporating small changes into your everyday life.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that our body needs, but sometimes has too much of. Often, cholesterol will build up in our blood, which eventually builds up in our artery walls as plaque. This buildup causes blockages near the heart, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
It’s important to know that the hardening of arteries is a gradual process, rather than an overnight occurrence. The buildup of plaque in the arteries can start as early as adolescence!
Two Types of Cholesterol
There are two types of cholesterol: HDL and LDL. The easiest way to differentiate between the two is to recognize them as the good and the bad cholesterol. HDL is known as the “good” cholesterol and LDL is known as the “bad” cholesterol. Having too much of the bad (LDL) means that you have high cholesterol. The CDC says that over 73 million Americans have high cholesterol.
Checking your cholesterol levels is quick and easy with a simple blood test done by your doctor. The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that adults aged 20 years or older have their cholesterol checked every five years. Before age 40, get a blood test every 3 years, and after age 40, get a blood test annually.
For those that fall into any of the following categories, you may be required to have your levels checked more often:
- Total cholesterol is 200 mg/dL or higher
- A male older than 45 or a female older than 50
- Your HDL cholesterol is lower than 40 mg/dL
- You have other risk factors for heart disease or stroke
Make sure you discuss your cholesterol levels with your doctor so you can catch problems early.
Prevention and Treatment
Here are a few simple ways to take control of your cholesterol. As always, it is important to follow any instructions that your doctor provides, including staying on medications if prescribed.
Your health usually begins with your fork, so the first step in prevention starts with what goes in your body. Did you know that not all fats are bad for us? Eating foods with polyunsaturated fats can actually lower the bad cholesterol.
Try cooking your food with canola, coconut, or olive oils to raise the good cholesterol and lower the bad. Incorporate fatty fish into your diet, like salmon, tuna, trout and sardines, as they are high in a healthy fat called omega-3s. Focus on good fats and avoid bad ones like saturated and trans fats, as these raise the bad cholesterol.
Whole grains, vegetables, and fruits are all high in fiber, which has been known to lower cholesterol. Aim for five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day to help control your cholesterol levels. As a bonus, they are packed with antioxidants, which has also been proven to beat high cholesterol.
It’s easy to overeat, which can be dangerous as it may lead to weight gain and extra fat in your diet. A good tool to use so you can avoid this lies in the palm of your hand (literally!):
- One serving of meat or fish is about what fits in your palm.
- One serving of fruit is about the size of your fist.
- Nuts, cooked vegetables, rice, and pasta, should all fit into your hand when it's cupped.
Physical activity has been proven to help lower and prevent high cholesterol. In turn, you will be able to manage your weight as well. Being overweight or obese can put you at risk for having high cholesterol levels. Genes can also be a cause of high cholesterol. You may eat right and be at a healthy body weight, but if you’re genetically predisposed to having a high cholesterol, you may need to seek other options, like medication, to control your levels. Aim for about 30 minutes a day of light to moderate physical activity or exercise.
Small Changes for Big Results
Examples of small changes that can make a big difference in your cholesterol levels include: replacing whole milk with low fat dairy foods; having a bowl of whole grain oatmeal for breakfast; eating more heart healthy salmon; snacking on almonds instead of potato chips; and going for a 40-minute walk every day.
These small changes can have a lasting impact on your health. Studies have shown that eating about an ounce of nuts a day makes you less likely to get heart disease. Just remember your handy portion tool!