Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that comes from two sources: your body and food. Our body produces cholesterol because we need it to carry out a number of different functions. Although it has an important role to play in your body, not all cholesterol is the same.
There are two types of cholesterol, sometimes known as “good” and “bad” cholesterol. It’s important to know which is which, since high (bad) cholesterol is one of the risk factors in the development of coronary heart disease. The two types are LDL (the bad) and HDL (the good). About one in two American adults has borderline or high cholesterol levels.
Diet is one of the biggest contributing factors for high cholesterol. It is also the easiest to control. Some foods raise cholesterol while other foods help lower it. What you eat and how much you eat has a big impact on your heart. Your food choices can help you be healthier – or impede your health. When it comes to managing your cholesterol levels, the two biggest considerations are the amount of cholesterol you eat and the amount of fat you eat.
Eating too much saturated fat is likely to raise blood cholesterol more than any other food in your diet. A goal of just 7% of total calories is no more than 16 grams per day for most people. To stay within these boundaries, eat more of a plant-based diet with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and limit red meat, full-fat dairy products, baked goods, and fried foods. An added bonus: Lowering your saturated fat intake means you’ll help lower cholesterol intake as well, since saturated fat and cholesterol tend to be found together.
If you’re overweight, chances are you have high cholesterol. A study from the August 2004 issue of “International Journal of Obesity,” consisting of nearly 50,000 subjects of various age groups and ethnicity, found a strong link between high cholesterol and obesity.
It’s widely speculated that a higher BMI alone is attributable to coronary heart disease. This is because excess fat raises LDL – the bad cholesterol. It also decreases HDL – the good cholesterol. Additionally, being overweight puts you at greater risk for diabetes and high blood pressure. And both of these are also risk factors for heart disease. Your risk for heart disease is even greater if you carry your weight mainly around your waist. This is sometimes called an apple shape.
It’s time to get off that couch and get moving. Not being physically active is a risk factor for high cholesterol and heart disease. Lack of physical activity increases bad cholesterol, and decreases good cholesterol.
People with a sedentary lifestyle are much more likely to have high blood cholesterol than those who exercise. By increasing your physical activity, you can raise your good cholesterol and possibly lower your bad cholesterol. Exercise can also help you control your weight, prevent or control diabetes, and control high blood pressure. You should aim to be physically active for a minimum of 30 minutes on most, if not all, days.
After you reach age 20, your cholesterol levels naturally begin to rise. Heart experts at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute say that men in their 40s are four times more likely to die from heart disease than are women the same age. That is partially because until age 50, men tend to have higher cholesterol levels than women do. However, as time goes on, the statistics for women change.
After menopause, a woman’s bad cholesterol level tends to go up, and her good cholesterol level goes down and many menopausal women tend to have higher cholesterol than do men of the same age.
Your overall health can also have a big impact on your cholesterol levels. Don’t skip your annual physical, and be sure to have your doc explain your heart disease risk. Having certain diseases, such as diabetes, may cause high cholesterol. Diabetes can damage the inside of your arteries allowing cholesterol to build up. Having high levels of triglycerides can also cause high cholesterol. Triglycerides are another type of fat, and they’re used to store excess energy from your diet. Underlying diseases or genetic disorders are sometimes the cause of high triglycerides. Many people with heart disease or diabetes also have high triglyceride levels.
Your genes partly determine how much cholesterol your body makes. Family members share genes, behaviors, lifestyles, and environments that can influence their health and their risk for disease. High cholesterol can run in a family, and your risk can increase based on your age and your race or ethnicity.
If you have a family history of high cholesterol, you may have or develop high cholesterol. You may need to get your cholesterol levels checked more often than people who do not have a family history of high cholesterol. The risk for high cholesterol can increase even more when heredity combines with unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as eating an unhealthy diet. Additionally, some people have an inherited genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolemia. This condition causes very high “bad” cholesterol levels beginning at a young age.
Smoking can lower your good cholesterol by up to 15%. And it can kill you. So why not quit smoking? The American Heart Association calls smoking “the foremost preventable cause of death in the United States.”
Smoking injures blood vessels and speeds up the hardening of the arteries. This makes them more apt to collect the fatty deposits, called plaque, that cause atherosclerosis. Experts believe that smoking makes plaque in your coronary arteries more likely to rupture and cause a heart attack. Even breathing secondhand smoke increases a person’s risk for a heart attack and other heart conditions. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, quitting will lower your cholesterol as well as your risk for heart disease and stroke.
When you have more than your body needs, cholesterol can cause plaque to build up in your arteries. This thick, hard plaque can clog your arteries like a blocked pipe. Reduced blood flow can lead to a stroke or heart attack.
Additionally, elevated blood cholesterol is considered a risk factor for coronary heart disease. According to a 2007 Centers for Disease Control report, heart disease claims the lives of more than 400,000 Americans each year. Despite the risks, about 1 in 3 Americans have not had their cholesterol tested in the past 5 years.
If you’re 20 years old or older, and have not had a heart problem, the American Heart Association recommends that you have your cholesterol checked every 4 to 6 years. Although many family physicians routinely include cholesterol testing as part of each annual exam. Be proactive about your health and don’t skip annual exams which could catch early signals of high cholesterol, diabetes, or other preventive diseases.