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A Guide to Navigating the Muddy Waters of Cholesterol Education

A Guide to Navigating the Muddy Waters of Cholesterol Education

A Guide to Navigating the Muddy Waters of Cholesterol Education

Cholesterol often gets a bad rap, so in honor of National Cholesterol Education Month this September, let’s polish up your knowledge of this waxy substance.

But first, what is cholesterol? Your liver produces cholesterol, which circulates in the blood. Your body needs it to make cell membranes, vitamin D, and some hormones, and to digest fatty foods. Since your body creates more than enough, it’s generally recommended to limit your intake of dietary cholesterol, which is prevalent in many animal products.

Keep in mind that too much cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease or stroke. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), more than a third of US adults have high cholesterol.

So read on to learn more — and to discover how to potentially lower certain cholesterol levels, too.

Are There Different Types of Cholesterol?

An essential part of cholesterol education is to differentiate between the two types of proteins, called lipoproteins, that transport cholesterol throughout your bloodstream to and from cells:

  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. This is what’s referred to as “bad” cholesterol since it can facilitate fatty buildups (plaque) in your arteries, leading to a condition called atherosclerosis. That, in turn, raises your risk for heart disease, heart attacks, peripheral artery disease, and stroke.
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. This is the “good” cholesterol you’ve been hearing about, and it carries LDL cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, which then rids it from your body. So, a higher level of HDL cholesterol is good for your heart health and decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Additionally, there’s a relationship between cholesterol and triglycerides, which are the most common kind of fat in your body and take in energy surpluses from your diet. Having excessive levels of triglycerides with high LDL cholesterol or with low HDL cholesterol can inflate your risk of heart attacks and stroke.

A cholesterol test issued by your provider can gauge how much cholesterol of each type is in your blood, as well as the amount of triglycerides in your body.

Risk Factors for High Cholesterol

Another important aspect of cholesterol education is knowing your risk factors for high LDL cholesterol or low HDL cholesterol. Even if you can’t control some of these, such as family history, there are recommendations you can follow for the ones that you can manage. Consider the following risk factors:

  • Health and medical conditions. Specific conditions can affect your cholesterol levels, so it’s best to consult with your provider. For instance, obesity is associated with a high level of triglycerides, along with higher LDL cholesterol levels and lower HDL cholesterol levels, which isn’t good. Type 2 diabetes also decreases HDL while increasing LDL cholesterol levels. And a genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolemia can aggressively increase LDL levels.
  • Diet. What are the worst foods for high cholesterol? Well, simply put: Eating anything rich in saturated fats and trans fats may lead to high LDL cholesterol levels. Make sure to read nutrition labels when you’re shopping for groceries to see how much of those fats are included in the products you’re buying.
  • Smoking. Since smoking tobacco can lower HDL levels and harm blood vessels, making them more susceptible to fatty buildups, it’s definitely a no-no if you’re concerned about “bad” cholesterol.
  • Exercise. If you’re someone who doesn’t prioritize physical activity, you may gain weight, which can adversely affect your cholesterol levels. But not everyone needs a full-on exercise routine.
  • Age. The risk for high cholesterol increases with age — and that applies to pretty much everyone because our bodies can’t remove cholesterol from the blood as efficiently as they can when we’re younger.
  • Family history. The probability of having high cholesterol is higher if members of your family have (or had) high cholesterol, so genetics do play a role in your cholesterol levels, too.

Cholesterol Education: How to Reduce LDL Levels Naturally

If your LDL cholesterol levels are particularly high, your medical provider may need to prescribe cholesterol-lowering medicine.

Keep track of your blood pressure as well. New research points to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and death when you have both high LDL levels and high blood pressure, the latter of which is also known as hypertension.

Meanwhile, assessing your diet, lifestyle choices, stress factors, and exercise regimen, and then making the necessary changes, is one of the best ways to decrease bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol in your body. Here are some more tips to follow:

  • Avoid red meat; baked products teeming with saturated fats (think cookies and cakes); full-fat ice cream made with hydrogenated oil and animal fat; fried foods; refined sugars; and processed meat, like hot dogs, bacon, and sausage. Fish, skinless chicken, and turkey breast are better options.
  • Stock up on foods that have lots of soluble fiber, which helps diminish the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream. These include legumes, such as black beans, lentils, and chickpeas; nuts and seeds; oat bran and barley; and certain fruits and vegetables, like blueberries, avocados, oranges, broccoli, and sweet potatoes.
  • Aim for heart-healthy foods whenever you can, such as fish that’s filled with omega-3 fatty acids (like salmon and sardines); leafy greens (like kale and spinach); and whole grains (like brown rice).
  • If you already have a plan to lose weight, that’s great. If not, try setting realistic fitness goals to aid in your weight-loss objectives.

To learn more about your cholesterol levels and how to manage them, find a provider today and start the discussion. Low cost health and wellness screenings are also available every Tuesday and Wednesday.