Cholesterol is a fat-like waxy substance made by our liver, and found in our blood and throughout all the cells of our body. Cholesterol is essential for our good health and is needed for making cell walls, tissues, hormones, vitamin D, and bile acid. As with so many things regarding our health – amounts matter.
With high cholesterol, over time, you can develop fatty deposits, known as atherosclerosis in your blood vessels. As these deposits thicken and grow, they can create blockages, inhibiting the flow of blood through your arteries. These deposits (also called plaques or atherosclerotic plaque) can break loose and form a clot that causes a heart attack or stroke. Some people have inherited naturally higher cholesterol, and this isn’t necessarily a danger, but your diet can make the difference.
The “Good” and “Bad” Explained
Cholesterol travels through your blood attached to proteins. This binding of proteins and cholesterol is called a lipoprotein. There are different types of cholesterol, based on what the lipoprotein carries. They are:
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, transports cholesterol particles throughout your body. LDL cholesterol builds up in the walls of your arteries, making them hard and narrow.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL, the “good” cholesterol, picks up excess cholesterol and takes it back to your liver.
A lipid profile also typically measures triglycerides, the most common type of fat in the body. Having a high triglyceride level also can increase your risk of heart disease.
Again, It’s The Diet
What we add to our naturally made cholesterol is called dietary cholesterol. Cholesterol only comes from animal products – meats, poultry, eggs, seafood, and dairy products. But lean and low-fat animal products eaten in moderation are not the problem! It is saturated fats. Saturated fats affect the way your liver handles cholesterol and tends to raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in the blood. That’s the “bad” kind. Because saturated fat plus cholesterol is found in red meat and dairy products–this is doubly not good.
Foods that contain cholesterol and are high in saturated fat:
- Full fat dairy foods such as milk, cheese, yogurt, cream and ice cream.
- Animal fats, such as butter, ghee, margarines and spreads made from animal fats, lard, suet and drippings
- Fatty meat and processed meat products such as sausages and salami
Trans fats do occur naturally in animal products, but the kind that affects cholesterol and heart health are the hydrogenated oils are often found in packaged snacks, cookies, desserts, and fried foods.
Factors that can increase your risk of unhealthy cholesterol levels include:
- Too much fat Eating too much saturated fat or trans fats can result in unhealthy cholesterol levels.
- Saturated fats are found in fatty cuts of meat and full-fat dairy products. Trans fats are often found in packaged snacks or desserts.
- Some tropical oils such as palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil, contain saturated fat that can increase bad cholesterol.
- These oils are often found in baked goods, crackers and chips. Here’s my blog about moving to a more plant-based diet.
- Obesity. Having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater puts you at risk of high cholesterol.
- Lack of exercise. Exercise helps boost your body’s HDL, the “good,” cholesterol.
- Smoking. Cigarette smoking may lower your level of HDL, the “good,” cholesterol.
- Alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can increase your total cholesterol level.
- Age. It is common for levels to rise over age 40. As you age, your liver becomes less able to remove LDL cholesterol.
High Cholesterol is Treatable – Get Your Levels Checked
With diet and lifestyle changes high cholesterol numbers can be brought down. Having eggs for breakfast is okay, it’s the bagel with butter or pastry that’s the problem.
A blood test is the only way to detect high cholesterol. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a person’s first cholesterol screening should occur between the ages of 9 and 11, and then be repeated every five years after that. The NHLBI recommends that cholesterol screenings occur every one to two years for men ages 45 to 65 and for women ages 55 to 65. People over 65 should receive cholesterol tests annually.
Other medical conditions that can cause unhealthy cholesterol levels include:
- Chronic kidney disease
Cholesterol levels can also be worsened by some types of medications you may be taking for other health problems, such as:
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heart rhythms
- Organ transplants