Almost everyone has heard about the dangers of high cholesterol, but exactly what that means isn't always clear. Obviously, “bad” cholesterol is bad, but why is “good” cholesterol good? Can diet and exercise alone lower cholesterol? What are the best medications to control cholesterol?
Understanding the basics is the first step to a healthier you. To maintain your health, talk to your doctor about ways you can improve your cholesterol.
Types of cholesterol
Two types of lipoprotein carry cholesterol to and from cells throughout the body.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) delivers cholesterol to the body. LDL is known as “bad” cholesterol, and it's the number you want to keep low. According to Harvard Health Publishing, an LDL level under 100 mg/dL (or under 70 mg/dL for those at risk of heart disease) is optimal. LDL makes up most of your body’s cholesterol. When this number is high, your risk of heart disease and stroke increases.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) absorbs cholesterol from the bloodstream and carries it back to the liver. HDL is known as “good” cholesterol, and high levels of HDL cholesterol can help lower your risk for heart disease and stroke. You want your HDL number to be high — ideally above 60 mg/dL, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Know your cholesterol numbers
Your total cholesterol levels (LDL and HDL) should be below 200 mg/dL. About 14% of Americans have levels above 240 mg/dL, which is considered high. If you're one of those people, lowering your cholesterol level can reduce your chances of having a heart attack. For every 10% drop in your cholesterol level, your heart attack risk falls by 20% to 30%.
Ways to control your cholesterol
If you have high cholesterol or have a family history of high cholesterol, there are some simple heart-healthy foods you can eat to help lower your risk. You can also commit to healthy lifestyle changes.
Make food choices that improve your health
- Fats — Avoid foods high in saturated fats, and steer clear of trans fats. Substitute healthier unsaturated fats, which are found in fish, nuts and vegetable oils.
- Whole grains — Whole-grain bread, pasta and cereal are less likely to cause a blood sugar rollercoaster than highly refined white-flour versions. The fiber found in whole grains can also help you feel full longer.
- Healthy choices — Eat more fruits and vegetables and make healthy dairy substitutions, like fat-free milk instead of whole milk.
Choose a healthy lifestyle
- Exercise regularly — Moderate physical activity can help raise your HDL. Up to 30 minutes of light exercise five times a week or 20 minutes of more intense aerobic activity three times a week can make a difference.
- Quit smoking — Giving up smoking improves your HDL cholesterol level, and it can happen fast! Within 20 minutes of quitting, your blood pressure and heart rate recover from cigarette-induced spikes. And your blood circulation and lung function begin to improve within three months of quitting.
- Maintain a healthy weight — Carrying extra pounds contributes to high cholesterol. Little changes can add up. Replace sugary beverages with water and snack on air-popped popcorn or pretzels. Or try sherbet or candies with little or no fat, like jelly beans. Losing even 5-10 pounds can help.
- Limit alcohol — For healthy women of all ages and men older than 65, one drink a day is considered moderate. For men 65 and younger, up to two drinks a day is considered moderate.
If lifestyle and dietary changes aren't budging your cholesterol levels, talk with your doctor about medications that may help.
The biggest step to lowering your cholesterol is the first step: getting started. Talk with your doctor about your options, take encouragement from your progress and keep your eye on a healthier life.
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