March is National Nutrition Month, spotlighting the importance of a well-rounded diet plays in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. One of the most important things a diet can do for you is help maintain healthy cholesterol levels, reducing your risk of heart disease. Read on for tips about how a healthy diet can manage your cholesterol!
Cholesterol Facts and Statistics
Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by your liver, and it's not entirely harmful. It's there to help build and maintain the membranes of your cells. But when blood cholesterol becomes too high, it creates fatty deposits in your arteries that can grow and block off blood flow. This increases your blood pressure, which raises the risk of a heart attack, and some of these deposits can break off and cause a heart attack or stroke.
You've probably heard that there are two types of cholesterol:
- High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL): the "good cholesterol" that returns excess cholesterol to your liver.
- Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL): the "bad cholesterol" that moves through your body and can build up in your arteries.
Doctors suggest that your total cholesterol be around 200 mg/dL or lower, with less than 100 mg/dL being LDL cholesterol, and 40 mg/dL or higher being HDL. Many Americans do not reach these goals, though:
- 95 million adults have cholesterol levels higher than 200 mg/dL.
- Nearly 29 million adults have cholesterol levels higher than 240 mg/dL.
- 55% of adults (43 million) who could benefit from medication for cholesterol do not take it.
- The leading cause of death in America is heart disease, and stroke is the 5th leading cause.
Risk Factors and Complications
High cholesterol has both controllable and uncontrollable risk factors. The good news is that most of the risk factors for bad cholesterol can be managed! They include:
- Poor diet: saturated fats, trans fats, or foods high in cholesterol (red meats, full-fat dairy products) can raise your cholesterol level.
- Obesity: a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or more increases your risk of high cholesterol.
- Lack of exercise: exercise boosts "good" HDL cholesterol
- Smoking: damages the walls of blood vessels, which can make them more susceptible to cholesterol deposits.
- Diabetes: high blood sugar can damage the lining of your arteries and lower "good" HDL cholesterol, as well as contributes to dangerous Very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL).
Uncontrollable risk factors include:
- Genetic predisposition.
- Age: as you get older your body has more difficulty removing "bad" LDL cholesterol.
- Gender: men tend to have lower levels of HDL and higher levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol than women.
Complications are varied, but all severe:
- Atherosclerosis: buildup of cholesterol deposits, or plaques, on the walls of arteries that can impede or block blood flow.
- Angina: chest pain resulting from blocked arteries.
- Heart attack: when plaques rupture or tear, a blood clot may form. This blocks blood flow and causes a heart attack.
- Stroke: when a blood clot blocks blood flow to the brain.
High cholesterol itself does not have symptoms, unlike the health conditions it leads to. That's why it's important to adopt healthy lifestyle choices and manage your cholesterol level before it becomes an issue:
- Get checked! Adults should have their cholesterol checked at least once every 5 years, according to doctors, and more often for those whose levels miss recommended goals.
- Exercise: doctors recommend at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate exercise or 1 hour and 15 minutes of regular exercise per week.
- Manage your diet: focus on getting plenty of low-fat and high-fiber food (fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains). Moderate your intake of good fats and eliminate most animal fats.
- Don't smoke; quit if you smoke.