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Cholesterol and Heart Health

Cholesterol is a very important determinant of our health, especially heart health. You may have heard of good cholesterol, bad cholesterol or total cholesterol, but do you know how these individual factors affect your health? Here’s what you need to know to keep all those numbers and letters straight!

—Judy Mayer, DTR

Type                           Desirable              Borderline           High           Undesirable
Triglycerides                 < 150                    150–199           200–499            > 500
Total Cholesterol           < 200                    200–239            > 240                  ###
HDL Cholesterol            > 60                         ###                   ###                   ###
LDL Cholesterol            < 100                    130–159          160–189             > 190

*< = less than
*> = greater than

Fats in your blood that increase right after you eat. High triglycerides can be a result of eating too many refined carbohydrates and sugary foods, alcohol consumption and weight gain and in combination with high LDL-cholesterols can increase your risk of heart disease.

Total Cholesterol
Number you often receive from your doctor. It is a ratio derived from your LDL, HDL, and triglyceride readings. It is important to ask your doctor what each of your readings are and what your goals should be.

Sometimes called "good cholesterol" because it helps prevent plaque from building up in the arteries by clearing LDL from the body. A person may raise HDL cholesterol by eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, losing weight, not smoking and most importantly exercising.

Often referred to as "bad cholesterol" as too much can slowly build up on artery walls feeding the heart and brain, forming plaque. Plaque makes arteries less flexible. LDL can be reduced by eating more oatmeal, oat bran and high fiber foods like whole fruits and vegetables, legumes. Also, increase foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids found in cold water fish like salmon and sardines, in polyunsaturated nuts like walnuts or almonds. And choose high quality olive oil for cooking and salads.

The American Heart Association recommends that Americans 20 and older obtain a fasting cholesterol profile from their doctor once every 5 years. In light of the incidence of childhood obesity a cholesterol screening may also be beneficial for young children.

Your genes influence how high your LDL (bad) cholesterol is by affecting how fast LDL is made and removed from the blood. Inherited high cholesterol affects 1 in 500 people. This can lead to early heart disease.

What you eat
Eating too much saturated fat and cholesterol is the main reason for high levels of cholesterol and a high rate of heart at tacks in the United States. Reducing the amount of consumed animal proteins is a very important step in reducing blood cholesterol levels.

Excess weight tends to increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol. If you are overweight and have a high LDL cholesterol level, losing weight may help you lower it. Weight loss also helps to lower triglycerides and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels.

Physical activity/Exercise
Regular physical activity may lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol levels.

Alcohol intake increases HDL cholesterol but does not lower LDL cholesterol. Drinking too much alcohol can damage the liver and heart muscle, lead to high blood pressure and raise triglycerides.

Stress over the long term has been shown in several studies to raise blood cholesterol levels. One way that stress may do this is by affecting your habits. For example, when some people are under stress, they console themselves by eating fatty foods. Chronic emotional stress also exposes your body to unhealthy, persistently elevated levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Emotional wellbeing may be the most neglected element in the prevention of heart disease.

What are the major risk factors for heart disease?

  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Low HDL-cholesterol (<35 mg/dl)
  • Diabetes
  • Early heart disease that runs in the family
  • Female over the age of 55 or male over the age of 45
  • Female under 55 with premature menopause without the use of hormone therapy

Try some delicious, heart healthy recipes!

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