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Do You REALLY Understand Cholesterol?

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Good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, LDLs, HDLs, triglycerides…there are so many terms regarding cholesterol and heart health, it can leave a person completely confused  You’ve probably heard that having high cholesterol is bad for you, but do you REALLY understand what it means and why?

Believe it or not, it is normal to have cholesterol in your body. It is found in your blood and cells, and it is important to a healthy body because it supports multiple body functions, including the manufacturing of cell membranes and some hormones.  However, too much cholesterol in the blood (known as hypercholesterolemia) may increase your risk for heart disease.

Cholesterol is both manufactured by the body, and comes from foods you eat. In order to understand cholesterol’s impact on your health, I’ve provided a chart of the different terms you have heard and what they really mean

Term Nickname Description Where it Comes from Healthy Numbers
Dietary Cholesterol - Approximately 25 percent of your cholesterol comes from food.  However, it is important to note that the biggest influence on blood cholesterol level is the mix of fats in your diet—not cholesterol from food. Foods from animals contain dietary cholesterol:

  • Egg yolks
  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Shellfish
  • Whole- and reduced-fat milk and dairy products
The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily cholesterol intake to:

  • < 300 milligrams
  • < 200 milligrams if you have heart disease
Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDLs) “Bad Cholesterol” May build up in your arteries along with other substances, forming plaque, which restricts blood flow to your heart, brain, and other vital organs.  This directly results in an increased risk for heart disease, including heart attack and stroke.
  • Produced naturally by the body.  Some people inherit genes that cause them to make too much.
  • Eating saturated fat, trans fats and dietary cholesterol also increases how much you have in your blood stream.
Best BELOW100*

(with combined LDL and HDL below 200)

High-Density Lipoproteins (HDLs) “Good Cholesterol” Carries cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver, where the body can eliminate it.
  • Produced naturally by the body.
  • Eating monounsaturated fats can increase how much you have.
Best ABOVE

  • 50 for women
  • 40 for men

(with combined LDL and HDL below 200)

Triglycerides (Trigs) - A type of fat in the blood. High levels can narrow and harden arteries, making it hard for blood to flow. High levels are often accompanied by high LDL (bad cholesterol) levels and low HDL (good cholesterol) levels.  Again, this results in an increased risk for heart disease.
  • Produced in the liver
  • Comes from fats in the food you eat
Best BELOW  150

* Your ideal LDL number ALSO depends on other risk factors you have, such as your age, family history, cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, or low HDL.   Always consult with your doctor about your risk factors and where your numbers should be.

How else can you impact your cholesterol levels?

Most people’s “numbers” are affected by genetics, age and gender…which, for the most part, are out of our control.  Further, medical conditions and medications may cause an elevation of cholesterol levels in the blood. Other than taking cholesterol medication, however, there ARE several ways you can keep your cholesterol and triglyceride numbers as healthy as possible.

  • Diet: Different types of dietary fat have different impacts on your health.   Saturated Fats and Trans Fats may increase LDL; and trans fats increase decrease HDLs.  As a result, it is best to stick with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, while reducing the amount of saturated fat and trans fats and cholesterol in your diet helps lower your blood cholesterol level.  Further, eating a diet high in soluble fiber can help to lower cholesterol levels as well (oats are high in soluble fiber).
  • Physical Activity: Exercising and being active can raise your HDL cholesterol, while lowering your LDL.   Inactivity, however, is a major risk factor for heart disease.  Aim to get 30 minutes of activity on most days.
  • Weight: Being overweight can negatively impact your cholesterol levels. Losing excess-weight can help raise healthy HDLs, lower unhealthy LDLs, total cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels.
  • Smoking: Smoking lowers HDL and increases the tendency for your blood to clot…raising risk for heart disease.
  • Alcohol: In certain studies, alcohol has shown to raise HDL.  However, it doesn’t significantly enough to recommend drinking alcohol as a preventative measure.  Always make sure you drink in moderation (1 to drinks per day for men and one per day for women).

Do you have high cholesterol?  What measures are you taking to lower your numbers?

Foods from animals (especially egg yolks, meat, poultry, shellfish and whole- and reduced-fat milk and dairy products) contain it.

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Posted in Brett's Blog, Nutrition Tagged with: , , ,
  • Brooke

    It’s amazing how strongly cholesterol is emphasized, but never really explained to most lay people. My company offers free cholesterol screening every year and they pass out our results, but there is no guidance on what the results mean for our overall health. I wind up giving a mini-lecture to my department on appropriate levels, and the only reason I know is because of my family history, not because of any medical training.

    My maternal family has wacky cholesterol levels and our blood is being studied at the University of Utah. My total cholesterol is 91 with my HDL at 65, my LDL is 23, and my triglycerides are 31. Doctors always do a double take when they see my blood work! My mom’s is even crazier-she has a total cholesterol of 27, which is HDL only. Her LDL doesn’t register!

    • Brett

      Wow! My cholesterol has been very low as well…but not enough to have people want to study my blood! Maybe, Brooke, you hold the key to solving cholesterol problems!

  • http://www.reawakeningvitality.com Dr. Lee Samatowic

    Brett, Thank you for helping to clarify the cholesterol story. It is so important to understand the whole story of cholesterol and that we place way too much emphasis on it.

    Cholesterol is so essential to our health, and conventional medicine is trying to drug it down to unhealthy levels.

    Cholesterol will go up when the body needs it. Why does it need it? We use cholesterol to manufacture hormones and to create healthy cell membranes. If we don’t eat enough we will make more. Blaming cholesterol for heart disease is like blaming the firemen who put out your house fire for the damage to your house. The firemen are there to put out the fire.

    Cholesterol lines the arteries when there is inflammation. The real question is why is there inflammation. That is where the real danger is. We miss the mark when we only focus on the cholesterol.