What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in the cells of our body. It plays a vital role in various biological processes, including the production of hormones, vitamin D, and digestive juices. Cholesterol is produced by the liver and can also be obtained from certain foods.
Is cholesterol good or bad?
Cholesterol itself is neither good nor bad. It is essential for the normal functioning of the body. However, problems arise when there is an imbalance in the levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream. High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, often referred to as “bad” cholesterol, can lead to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. On the other hand, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, often called “good” cholesterol, helps remove LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream, reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
What can you do to reduce your “bad cholesterol” levels?
Here are 20 things you can do to lower your bad cholesterol levels:
- Maintain a healthy weight: Losing excess weight can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
- Exercise regularly: Engage in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for at least 150 minutes per week.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet: Focus on consuming fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. More details about foods to avoid at the end of this article.
- Limit saturated fats: Reduce the intake of foods high in saturated fats like red meat, full-fat dairy products, and fried foods.
- Avoid trans fats: Trans fats can raise LDL cholesterol levels. Check food labels and avoid products containing partially hydrogenated oils.
- Increase fiber intake: Consume more soluble fiber from sources like oats, barley, fruits, and vegetables, as it can help lower cholesterol.
- Eat fatty fish: Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines can help lower LDL cholesterol.
- Limit cholesterol-rich foods: Reduce intake of organ meats, shellfish, and egg yolks, as they contain high cholesterol levels.
- Choose healthier cooking methods: Opt for baking, grilling, steaming, or sautéing instead of frying.
- Incorporate plant sterols: Certain fortified foods and supplements contain plant sterols or stanols that can help lower LDL cholesterol.
- Limit alcohol consumption: Excessive alcohol intake can raise cholesterol levels, so it’s best to drink in moderation.
- Quit smoking: Smoking damages blood vessels and lowers HDL cholesterol levels. Quitting smoking can improve your cholesterol profile.
- Manage stress: Chronic stress may contribute to high cholesterol levels. Find healthy ways to manage stress, such as exercise, meditation, or hobbies.
- Limit sugary foods and beverages: Excess sugar intake can lead to weight gain and increase triglyceride levels.
- Consume nuts: Eating almonds, walnuts, or other nuts in moderation can help lower LDL cholesterol.
- Drink green tea: Some studies suggest that green tea may help reduce cholesterol levels.
- Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day to support overall health.
- Limit processed foods: Processed foods often contain unhealthy fats, additives, and excess sodium, which can negatively affect cholesterol levels.
- Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep may contribute to high cholesterol levels. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night.
- Regularly monitor your cholesterol levels: Consult with your healthcare provider and get regular check-ups to assess your cholesterol levels and make any necessary adjustments to your lifestyle or medication if required.
Foods and drinks to avoid to lower the risk of high LDL cholesterol levels
For further clarity and easy reference, here is a list with a bit more detail about which foods and drinks you should avoid or reduce in order to lower the risk of high LDL cholesterol levels:
- Saturated fats: Reduce the consumption of foods high in saturated fats, including fatty cuts of meat, full-fat dairy products like cheese and butter, and processed meats like sausages and bacon.
- Trans fats: Avoid foods containing trans fats, which are often found in fried foods, commercially baked goods (pastries, cookies, cakes), snack foods, and some margarines. Check food labels for partially hydrogenated oils, as they indicate the presence of trans fats.
- High-cholesterol foods: Limit your intake of foods that are high in dietary cholesterol, such as organ meats (liver, kidney), shellfish (shrimp, lobster), and egg yolks. While they do contain cholesterol, it’s worth noting that the effect of dietary cholesterol on blood cholesterol levels can vary between individuals.
- Processed and packaged snacks: Reduce consumption of processed and packaged snacks like chips, crackers, and cookies, as they often contain unhealthy fats and high amounts of sodium.
- Fast food and fried foods: Minimize intake of fast food, fried foods, and deep-fried snacks, as they are typically high in unhealthy fats and calories.
- Sugar-sweetened beverages: Limit or avoid sugary drinks such as sodas, fruit juices with added sugars, sweetened tea or coffee, and energy drinks. They can contribute to weight gain and higher triglyceride levels, affecting cholesterol profiles.
- Highly processed foods: Cut back on highly processed foods like ready-to-eat meals, instant noodles, and packaged snacks, as they often contain unhealthy fats, excessive sodium, and added sugars.
- Commercially baked goods: Reduce consumption of commercially baked goods like pastries, cakes, and cookies, as they often contain unhealthy fats, added sugars, and refined flours.
- Whole-fat dairy products: Opt for low-fat or skim milk, yogurt, and cheese instead of full-fat varieties to lower your saturated fat intake.
- Coconut oil and palm oil: Limit the use of coconut oil and palm oil as they are high in saturated fats. Instead, choose oils that are high in monounsaturated fats like olive oil, canola oil, or avocado oil.
It’s important to remember that a balanced diet is key, and simply avoiding these foods alone may not be sufficient. Focus on incorporating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats into your diet. Additionally, consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian for personalized advice and guidance based on your specific health needs; which may include helping you make changes to your diet or exercise routine. Seeing a specialist is especially important if you have any existing medical conditions or are taking medication.
How to test your cholesterol levels?
To test cholesterol levels, a blood test called a lipid profile or lipid panel is typically performed. Here’s how the process generally works:
- Fasting requirement: In most cases, you’ll be required to fast for 9 to 12 hours before the blood test. This means refraining from consuming any food or beverages (except water) during that period.
- Blood sample collection: A healthcare professional will draw a sample of your blood, usually from a vein in your arm.
- Lipid profile components: The blood sample will be analyzed for several components, including total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.
- Total cholesterol: This measures the sum of all cholesterol in your blood, including both LDL and HDL cholesterol.
- LDL cholesterol: Often referred to as “bad” cholesterol, LDL cholesterol contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries.
- HDL cholesterol: Often called “good” cholesterol, HDL cholesterol helps remove LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream.
- Triglycerides: Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood. Elevated levels can increase the risk of heart disease.
- Interpreting the test results: The test results will provide numerical values for each of these components, along with the reference ranges or target values established by medical guidelines. Generally, lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels and higher HDL cholesterol levels are considered more favorable. More details later in this article.
It’s important to note that healthy and unhealthy cholesterol levels can vary based on different factors, including gender, age, and other criteria. Here are some considerations:
- Gender: Generally, women tend to have higher HDL cholesterol levels than men, which is considered more favorable. Men, on the other hand, may have higher total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels.
- Age: Cholesterol levels can change with age. Total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels tend to rise until middle age and then stabilize or slightly decline. HDL cholesterol levels may decrease with age.
- Race and ethnicity: Some studies suggest that there may be variations in cholesterol levels among different racial and ethnic groups. For example, individuals of South Asian descent may have a higher risk of elevated cholesterol levels.
- Other criteria: Additional factors such as family history, personal medical history, and existing health conditions can influence what are considered healthy and unhealthy cholesterol levels. Your healthcare provider will consider these factors along with your lipid profile results to determine your specific risk factors and recommend appropriate interventions if necessary.
Having said that; here are some GENERAL reference ranges or target values established by medical guidelines.
How to read cholesterol test results?
Please note that these reference ranges or target values may vary slightly depending on the source and specific guidelines being followed.
- Desirable level: Less than 200 mg/dL (5.18 mmol/L)
- Borderline high: 200-239 mg/dL (5.18-6.18 mmol/L)
- High: 240 mg/dL (6.22 mmol/L) and above
- Optimal level: Less than 100 mg/dL (2.59 mmol/L)
- Near optimal/above optimal: 100-129 mg/dL (2.59-3.34 mmol/L)
- Borderline high: 130-159 mg/dL (3.37-4.12 mmol/L)
- High: 160-189 mg/dL (4.15-4.90 mmol/L)
- Very high: 190 mg/dL (4.91 mmol/L) and above
- Poor level (increased risk):
- Less than 40 mg/dL (1.04 mmol/L) for men, and
- Less than 50 mg/dL (1.30 mmol/L) for women
- Good level (decreased risk): 60 mg/dL (1.56 mmol/L) and above
- Normal level: Less than 150 mg/dL (1.70 mmol/L)
- Borderline high: 150-199 mg/dL (1.70-2.25 mmol/L)
- High: 200-499 mg/dL (2.26-5.63 mmol/L)
- Very high: 500 mg/dL (5.64 mmol/L) and above
Always have a trained medical practitioner help you evaluate your test results
It’s important to note that these values are general guidelines, and the ideal target levels may vary based on an individual’s overall health, medical history, and other risk factors. Please make sure to consult with your healthcare provider to interpret your cholesterol test results accurately. They will provide personalized guidance and take into account your individual circumstances to assess your cholesterol levels and develop a suitable plan for management and prevention.