Cholesterol 101: What You Need To Know

cholesterol

Your body produces its own cholesterol but you can also get cholesterol from the foods you eat. While cholesterol is an essential part of our bodies, too much cholesterol can be harmful. 

There are usually no signs or symptoms of high cholesterol, so unless you are checking your levels regularly, you may not be aware that these levels are high. People with chronically high cholesterol have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke, so it’s important to annually assess your cholesterol levels and engage in steps to maintain normal cholesterol levels. 

Types of Cholesterol 

Your body needs a certain amount of cholesterol because it is a key component in the membranes (outside lining) of your cells. Cholesterol also plays a role in the production of vitamin D, various hormones, and bile acids that help digest fat. 

Cholesterol travels in your blood surrounded by a protein case known as a lipoprotein. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are known as “bad” cholesterol, as these are the types that can build up cholesterol in your arteries. LDL carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells that need it. However, if you have too much LDL circulating in your body, it can deposit more cholesterol in artery walls, which can narrow blood vessel(s) over time. Narrowing of the blood vessels results in increased blood pressure and increased workload for your heart, which, in turn, can cause high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease generally refers to a group of diseases, including coronary artery disease, arrhythmia, and heart failure. The narrowing of blood vessels may also increase the risk of clots forming and blocking blood flow, which can increase risk of heart attacks or strokes. 

High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are known as “good” cholesterol, as these remove cholesterol from your bloodstream and bring it to the liver for processing. Having too little HDL cholesterol can raise your risk of heart disease. 

What Influences Blood Cholesterol Levels 

Factors that affect cholesterol levels can be divided into those you can control and those you cannot. 

Age and genetics are two factors you cannot control. An inherited condition, called familial hypercholesterolemia, causes high cholesterol from a very young age. And cholesterol levels will generally increase with age — a factor you cannot control. 

Factors you can control are your weight, diet, physical activity levels, and whether you smoke or not. Not maintaining a healthy weight, smoking, and low physical activity levels all increase the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood. The relationship between food intake and high cholesterol has been debated for many years. It was once thought that cholesterol in foods such as eggs and shellfish contributed to high cholesterol in humans; however, we now know that this is not the case. 

How to Eat for Lower Cholesterol 

The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to 5 to 6 percent of daily calories (about 13 grams if you eat about 2,000 calories per day) and minimizing the amount of trans fats you eat. Saturated fats are mainly found in meats, dairy and other foods from animal sources. High consumption of trans fats has been shown to increase inflammation, and chronic inflammation has been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.  Trans fats can be found in highly processed foods such as baked goods, chips, cookies, and fast foods. The FDA started requiring manufacturers to label trans fats in 2006, and many manufacturers have removed them from their products. However, manufacturers can still claim a product has zero trans fat if one serving of that food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat. For this reason, it is important to check the nutrition facts label for “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” ingredients, which contain trans fats. 

Increasing fiber in your diet is also important in managing your cholesterol levels. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is only found in plants. Your body cannot digest fiber, and fiber traps cholesterol, so fiber and cholesterol move together through our bodies undigested. In this way, fiber can prevent cholesterol from being absorbed into our bodies. A whole foods, plant-focused diet that naturally is high in fiber can help to manage cholesterol levels. Aim to consume a minimum of 25 – 35 grams of fiber each day. 

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