Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2020, 696,962 Americans died from heart disease. A major risk factor? High blood cholesterol.
This September, we’re celebrating National Cholesterol Education Month with information to help you reduce your risk. Find out what “good” and “bad” cholesterol is, how to find out where your cholesterol falls on the scale toward optimal health, and how you can proactively prevent and manage it to reduce your risk for heart disease, heart attack or stroke.
What is Cholesterol?
Blood cholesterol is essential for good health. Your body needs this waxy, fat-like substance created by your liver in order to perform crucial tasks, such as making hormones and digesting fatty foods. You make all the cholesterol you need, which is why you do not need to eat any additional cholesterol in your diet.
Dietary cholesterol is found in animal foods. These foods include meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Consuming dietary cholesterol leads to unhealthy blood cholesterol levels.
Managing your blood cholesterol level is important for your heart and brain. High blood cholesterol typically has no symptoms, but it can lead to heart attacks and strokes. That’s why it’s important to have your cholesterol screened regularly by your health care provider.
How to Check Cholesterol Levels
You can easily check your cholesterol levels with a screening done by your healthcare provider. A cholesterol screening consists of a simple blood test and requires you to fast for 8 to 12 hours before blood is drawn. The test will check for your levels of lipoproteins, triglycerides, and total cholesterol.
A standard measurement of healthy cholesterol levels is:
Total cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL
LDL cholesterol: Less than 100 mg/DL
HDL cholesterol: Greater than or equal to 60 mg/dL
Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL
Generally, adults should have their cholesterol checked every 4 to 6 years. Some people, such as those who have heart disease or diabetes or a family history of high cholesterol, will need to be screened more often. Children and adolescents should have a cholesterol test at least once between ages 9 and 11 and then again between ages 17 and 21. If you’re not sure how often you should have your cholesterol level measured, consult your primary healthcare provider.
What is “Good” and “Bad” Cholesterol?
You have likely heard of “good” and “bad” cholesterol. But what does that even mean?
Cholesterol travels through your blood on two types of lipoproteins: low-density lipoprotein, which you may be familiar with as LDL, and high-density lipoprotein, or HDL. LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, makes up most of your body’s cholesterol. High levels of LDL raise your risk of heart diseases and strokes. The “good” cholesterol, HDL, absorbs cholesterol and carries it back to the liver, where it is then flushed out of your body. High levels of HDL can lower your risk for heart diseases and strokes.
When you have too much “bad” LDL cholesterol, it can build up as plaque on the walls of your blood vessels. Plaque buildup causes the inside of your arteries to narrow over time. This blocks blood flow to and from your heart and other vital organs, potentially leading to a heart attack or stroke.
How to Prevent High Cholesterol
In addition to heart-wise cholesterol checks at your doctor’s office, you can proactively prevent high blood cholesterol with your food choices. Research shows that eating less cholesterol reduces your risk of cardiovascular diseases. Your diet is under your control, which can feel comforting when facing the prospect or management of a major disease.
We already know that your body makes all the cholesterol it needs, so you don’t need any additional cholesterol from food to be healthy. The main culprits of dietary cholesterol are foods high in saturated fat and trans fat.
For a heart-healthy diet, you can:
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. The more, the better, really! Try “eating the rainbow” to ensure you get a variety of nutrients. DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is a flexible, well-balanced eating plan you could try.
- Curtail foods high in saturated fat. Saturated fats come from animal products and tropical oils (palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil). A mostly plant-based diet can help you achieve this goal.
- Reduce your sodium (salt) intake. Say no to salty foods such as canned soup, frozen meals, processed cheese, beef jerky, and smoked or cured meats like bacon, ham, and sausage; and strive for homemade meals over packaged or restaurant food. Swap salt for herbs and spices to keep your food flavorful.
- Eliminate all trans fats. Also known as trans-fatty acids, trans fats are usually created through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil. Trans fats are downright unhealthy. Avoid it by reading labels; you’ll see it listed as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Foods that often contain trans fats include commercial baked goods, shortening, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough, fried foods, nondairy creamer, and margarine.
- Eliminate or reduce added sugars in your diet. This means fewer baked goods, desserts, and convenience foods. Turn toward fruit and other naturally sweet alternatives to satisfy your sweet tooth.
- Choose foods naturally high in fiber, such as oatmeal and beans, and unsaturated fats, which you can find in avocado, olive oil, and nuts. These foods may help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise “good” HDL cholesterol. Browse these healthy recipes to find delicious, fiber-filled meals and snacks you can enjoy, such as Mexican Street Corn and Grilled Zucchini and Hummus Wraps.
Your diet is not the only way to lower your risk for heart disease and stroke. You can also make heart-healthy lifestyle changes.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Overweight and obesity raise levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and affects how your body uses cholesterol. Use your body mass index (BMI) number to determine whether your weight is in a healthy range, and if it’s not, work with your healthcare provider to create a food and fitness plan that works best for you.
- Get regular physical activity. In addition to helping you maintain a healthy weight, exercise lowers your cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Adults should aim to get at least 2 ½ hours of moderate exercise each week, while children should have an hour or more of physical activity every day.
- If you smoke, quit. Smoking damages your blood vessels, speeds up the process of hardening arteries, and has a profound effect on your heart disease risk.
- Limit or eliminate your alcohol consumption. Men should consume no more than two drinks per day, and women should have no more than one. Better yet, do not drink at all.
An estimated 71 million Americans have high blood cholesterol, and yet fewer than half get treatment. If you’re concerned about your cholesterol, speak with your healthcare provider. There are many choices you can make together to ease your worry and plan for a healthy future.