Do you know your numbers? After performing nearly 400 cholesterol tests and providing wellness coaching in recent weeks for people living in the DE, MD, and PA area for a local area employer, it became apparent that many people are still not well informed about cholesterol. This ignorance can be costly. Since high cholesterol is one of the primary risk factors for heart attack, stroke, and other vascular diseases, it’s important to understand that you are in control of this risk factor every day. First we’ll review what cholesterol is, then what you can do to keep your numbers where they need to be.
Our bodies make and use cholesterol to create cell membranes, sex hormones, bile acids, and vitamin D. We can’t live without it. However, in large amounts that come from our diet – namely animal foods like meat, milk, eggs, and butter, this essential substance can become dangerous. This is particularly true of the form of cholesterol called low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol.
As LDL circulates in the bloodstream, it undergoes a process called oxidation. This basically means that it spoils or turns rancid. Our immune systems quickly spot the decaying LDL and react to it like an invader. Once immune cells consume the LDL cholesterol molecules, they become engorged and stick to the walls of arteries. They harden into a dense, fatty layer known as plaque. When enough plaque accumulates, there’s less room for blood to flow. It may slow or eventually even stop flowing. When this occurs in arteries supplying the heart with blood, the result is a heart attack. When it occurs in arteries supplying the brain, the result is a stroke.
A second form of cholesterol called high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is known as the “good” cholesterol because it is our bodies’ mechanism for dealing with the threat of dangerous LDL. It transports LDL out of the blood and to the liver for disposal. It normally does a good job. But when cholesterol levels get too high, the HDL can’t keep up and LDL gradually rises to dangerous levels.
Ideally, you want to have high HDL levels (>60) and low levels of LDL (<100) and triglycerides (<150), a form of fat in the blood. You can learn more about what are considered normal and optimal levels at http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=183.
Our diet plays a significant role in managing cholesterol. The high saturated fat content of the average American diet has the biggest effect on blood cholesterol levels. Animal products, processed foods and cooking oils are the primary sources of this saturated fat.
The good news is that since you are in control of what you eat you can make significant progress lowering your cholesterol just by making some small changes in your diet. Healthy fats like mono- and polyunsaturated fats as well as soluble and insoluble fiber from fruits and vegetables and whole grains and omega fatty acids have all been shown to be effective in raising HDL, lowering LDL and triglycerides. In part 2 we’ll review how diet helps keep your arteries clean. Be well.