Cholesterol is in every cell in your body. It is a soft, waxy, fat-like substance that is used in the body’s synthesis of various hormones and bile acids. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need and circulates it through the blood. It cannot dissolve in blood, and so particles known as lipoproteins then help transport it from the liver to the cells via the bloodstream. Simple enough, right? Well unfortunately, things can go sideways. Cholesterol floats around in your blood and can get into the walls of the blood vessels. This can cause the blood vessels to get stiffer, narrower, or clogged. And if the cholesterol levels increase and clogging gets worse over many years, it can cause a heart attack or stroke1. But fear not! There are certain lifestyle choices you can make, that can keep your cholesterol in check. Before we get into that, let’s take a look at the different types of cholesterol.
Good Vs Bad Cholesterol
The most common way to determine your cholesterol levels is with a simple blood test. The blood test measures cholesterol and triglycerides that are circulating in your blood. Triglycerides are a type of fat in the blood. Similar to cholesterol, if triglycerides become elevated, you may be at risk for heart disease. The blood cholesterol test measures both low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Both types are important to monitor because only LDL cholesterol is considered “bad.” HDL cholesterol is considered “good” because it transports excess cholesterol to the liver for metabolism and elimination from the body. LDL “bad” cholesterol sticks more easily to the arterial wall and can contribute to plaque formation2.
By the Numbers
Physicians were advised to treat patients with higher than normal cholesterol based on the following values. Total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dl, and LDL should be less than 130 mg/dl. HDL should be greater than 40 mg/dl. Patients were considered to have high cholesterol if total cholesterol was 240 mg/dl or higher. An LDL of more than 160 mg/dl and an HDL below 40 mg/dl were considered high risk3.
Food Choices Matter
One of the most important tips for healthy cholesterol is to keep your intake of saturated fats fairly low. This is easier said than done, especially this time of year with all of the delicious holiday treats, but it is possible! That being said, it isn’t feasible to completely eliminate saturated fats from our diet, because foods with good sources of healthy fats – olive oil, coconut oil, walnuts, salmon – also contain some saturated fat. Most nutritionists advise getting no more than 7 percent of your calories from saturated fat. On the other hand, trans fats should be completely avoided. These dangerous man-made fats raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol.
Here are some cholesterol raising foods to avoid this season (and all year)
One of the worst types of food for your cholesterol is fried food. Deep fried meats and foods like mozzarella sticks are not only loaded with calories, but also trans fats, which increases heart disease risk. Processed meats are also considered a “no-no.” Processed meats includes things like sausage, bacon, hot dogs should be limited, because high consumption of these meats has been linked to increased rates of heart disease4.
Another item to limit would be desserts. Cookies, cakes, and other pastries tend to be high in cholesterol, added sugars, and other unhealthy fats and oils. Frequently indulging in these foods can negatively impact overall health and lead to weight gain over time.
Here are the top foods to improve your cholesterol numbers:
Oatmeal: Oatmeal contains soluble fiber, which reduces your LDL cholesterol. Soluble fiber is also found in foods like apples, pears, and brussels sprouts.
Fish: Fatty fish has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce your triglycerides, and reduce your blood pressure and your risk of developing blood clots. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fish per week5. The healthiest types of fish you can eat are salmon, herring, tuna, and trout.
Avocados: Avocados are a great source of nutrients as well as monounsaturated fats. Research suggests that eating half an avocado a day, in addition to a heart-healthy diet, can help to improve LDL cholesterol. Try adding some avocado slices to your salads and sandwiches!
Choose a Healthy Lifestyle
Besides eating these healthy-cholesterol foods, there is another huge tip we’d like to share – get physically active! Some studies suggest that physical activity can raise HDL. The American Heart Association recommends three to four 40-minute sessions of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic activity per week for adults trying to lower their LDL cholesterol or blood pressure6. Try Zumba, power walking, and even boxing!
Incorporate a few of these healthy foods, and get your sweat on a few times a week, and you can improve your cholesterol and protect your heart. One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself during the holidays is a healthy you!