Cholesterol, also called lipids, is a waxy, fat-like substance found in your body and many foods. The body needs cholesterol to function normally and can make all that is needed. When too much cholesterol builds up in the blood, it increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and other conditions.
When talking about cholesterol, it is important to understand that there are two types – the good and the bad:
HDL (high-density lipids) are larger particles and are commonly referred to as “good” cholesterol.
LDL (low-density lipids) are especially small particles and are commonly referred to as “bad” cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease and heart attacks.
An easy way to remember the difference is to think, “I want to make higher the high density, or HDL, cholesterol in my blood and I want to lower the LDL or low density, cholesterol in my blood.”
Do a Blood Test to Find Out Your Numbers
High cholesterol doesn’t usually have any symptoms; therefore, many people do not know that their cholesterol levels are too high. The best method of measuring cholesterol levels is with a blood test called a lipid panel or lipid profile. Because cholesterol and triglyceride levels rise after a meal — particularly one high in fat, sugars or alcohol — patients may be asked to fast 12 to 14 hours prior to having blood drawn.
The general recommendation is that people older than the age of 20 should have their cholesterol measured once every five years, more often if the numbers are high or if there is a family history of high cholesterol and heart disease, and as we age.
Normal cholesterol levels are not represented by a single number but within a range. National guidelines specify these measures:
LDL (BAD) Cholesterol Level – Lower is Better
Optimal: less than 100
Near/above optimal: 100 to 129
High: Any measurement above 130
HDL (GOOD) Cholesterol Level – Higher is Better
Optimal: greater than 60
Too low: less than 40
It’s About Fat
It turns out that the most important element — and the most dangerous — is fat. “Bad” saturated fat and trans fats raise the dangerous LDL cholesterol that can lead to plaque build-up in the arteries. “Good” unsaturated fat helps raise beneficial HDL cholesterol and lower LDL cholesterol by removing cholesterol from the bloodstream, keeping arteries clear.
Any food that contains saturated fat should be avoided. Trans fats are double trouble because they raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol.
Keep in mind that plant-based foods do not contain cholesterol; only foods that originate from animals contain dietary cholesterol.
Foods to Avoid or Only Eat on Occasion
Anything fried, as the oils the foods are fried in are often high in trans fats; if you must fry, use oils such as olive or sunflower.
Foods that list “partially hydrogenated and/or hydrogenated oil,” on the label (margarine, microwave popcorn, frozen dinners, mayonnaise, packaged baked goods and more).
The Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils by Jan. 1, 2021.
Red meat tends to contain unhealthy saturated fats, which can increase bad cholesterol.
Wild game is lower in saturated fats than store-bought meat. When you do eat meat, trim off any visible fat on steaks and chops, and always remove the skin from turkey and chicken.
Full-fat dairy products are loaded with saturated fats.
Foods that Raise the Good and Lower the Bad
Legumes (beans, peas and lentils)
Nuts – especially almonds and walnuts
Fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel
Oats and barley
Fruit and berries
Dark leafy greens
Dark chocolate and cocoa
Fiber via powders such as Metamucil, which can lower cholesterol by 10 percent
Beneficial Lifestyle Behaviors
Strive to increase physical activity and exercise most days of the week.
Lose just 10 percent of your body weight.
Stop using tobacco.
Drink alcohol in moderation.
Sometimes, healthy lifestyle changes aren’t enough to lower cholesterol levels. If your health care provider recommends medication to help lower your cholesterol, take it as prescribed while continuing your lifestyle changes. Lifestyle changes can help you keep your medication dose low. FBN
By L. George Hershey, D.O.
L. George Hershey, D.O., opened his family medical practice in Flagstaff in 1970. In 2013, he closed his private practice to become the medical director and a family practice physician at NACA’s Family Health Center. Most of his patients followed him. In addition to his role as a family physician, since 1971, he has served as the medical director and team physician for student athletes at Northern Arizona University.
NACA is a non-profit organization that offers primary care and behavioral health services, health promotion and a low-cost fitness center at the same location. NACA’s services and programs are available to people of all cultures, not just Native Americans. To learn more about all the services and programs NACA offers, visit NACAInc.org or call 928-773-1245. Stay up-to-date on new services, events and health topics by following NACA on Facebook.