For many, the word cholesterol has negative connotations–it’s just something you want to lower–and for many of us, that’s definitely true. More than 73 million Americans have high cholesterol, which can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and a little less than a third of them are controlling their cholesterol.
But it’s also true that cholesterol is more complicated than that.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol–a waxy, fat-like substance–is something that our bodies produce, and that we need. In fact, it’s found in all cells of the body. It helps make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest food.
Our bodies already produce all the cholesterol we need. We run into trouble when our diet causes the cholesterol level in our blood to get too high, which can cause blockages in arteries. But even that’s not as simple as it seems.
Scientists now say that foods that are high in cholesterol, like eggs, don’t necessarily have much impact on our cholesterol levels. Instead, it’s foods that are high in saturated and trans fats that are truly problematic.
The good and the bad
There are actually two types of cholesterol, which you may be familiar with. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are sometimes called “bad” cholesterol. High-density lipoproteins are also known as “good” cholesterol, because HDL helps carry cholesterol from other parts of your body to the liver, which removes it. It is important to have proper levels of both types of cholesterol.
What can you do?
The most important thing you can do is get a screening. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends regular screenings for men starting at age 35 and women starting at age 45. You should start sooner if you have an increased risk of heart disease. Screenings are particularly important, because high cholesterol is usually asymptomatic.
Whether or not you have high cholesterol, the Mayo Clinic offers five tips to help keep your levels in check:
- Eat heart-healthy foods–Limit saturated fats (full-fat dairy and red meat) and eliminate trans fats. Other fats–like those found in fish or nuts–can actually lower cholesterol, as can eating fiber.
- Exercise regularly–The Surgeon General recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week.
- Quit smoking–Aside from all the other health benefits, quitting smoking can lower your HDL cholesterol level.
- Lose weight–Extra weight can increase your cholesterol level.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation–For healthy adults, no more than two drinks a day for men under age 65, or one drink a day for men over 65 and women of all ages.
Talk to your doctor today about ensuring that you keep your cholesterol levels in check.