Why your cholesterol numbers matter

By Beth Cecil
Owensboro Health Healthpark dietitian

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), over 65 million Americans have high blood cholesterol. This can be a very serious condition and you may have high cholesterol and not even know it.

Anyone age 20 or older should have his or her cholesterol checked at least once every 5 years and the NHLBI actually recommends getting a blood test called a “lipoprotein profile” which will give you information about your total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglyceride levels.

Today doctors are looking not only at your total cholesterol, but also at your “good” HDL cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels too. This is important because in general, the higher your bad cholesterol or LDL is, the greater your risk for heart disease.

What exactly is LDL cholesterol you may ask? I refer to them as carrier molecules for cholesterol. LDL stands for low-density lipoproteins. Cholesterol and blood are like oil and water and don’t mix. In order for cholesterol to travel through the bloodstream, it is combined with a protein, making a lipoprotein.

Whereas the HDL (high-density lipoproteins) molecules carry the cholesterol away from the arteries for excretion from the body, the LDL (or low-density lipoproteins) molecules deposit the cholesterol in your arteries leading to buildup and even blockage.

The good news is that if you do have elevated LDL cholesterol there are steps you can take to improve it and thus lower your risk for developing heart disease. Read on for some general suggestions.

A diet high in fiber, especially soluble fiber, can help lower LDL levels. Soluble fiber binds with cholesterol and allows cholesterol to be excreted by the body rather than reabsorbed. It is found in oats, barley, dried beans and peas as well as vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Apples, pears, citrus fruits, berries and prunes are good sources as well.

Limiting the amount of saturated fat and trans-fat that you eat can lead to lower LDL levels as well. Saturated fat is found mainly in fatty meat, tropical oils, egg yolks and regular dairy products such as cheese, butter and whole milk. Trans-fats are often found in commercial baked goods such as cookies, crackers, donuts and pastries.

If you are overweight, losing weight can also help lower your LDL level. Watching your portion sizes, eating foods low in fat and limiting added sugar in your diet are some simple steps you can take towards weight loss.

Exercise is also a key when it comes to lowering LDL. Ideally, adults need to aim for at least 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity. Added benefits of exercise are that it can help promote weight loss and also help raise HDL or “good” cholesterol levels.

And finally, include foods with plant sterols in your diet. Research shows that 2-3 grams a day of plant sterols can lead to a reduction in LDL cholesterol levels. They occur naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and vegetables but are also being added to many foods today. Look for foods such as margarine, milk, yogurt, smoothies, snack bars and orange juice with added plant sterols.

While many factors in addition to high cholesterol can place you at risk for heart disease (cigarette smoking, advancing age, sex, family history, high blood pressure and diabetes), LDL cholesterol is one factor that our lifestyle choices may influence.

The bottom line: base your diet on a variety of fruits, vegetables, wholes grains and dried beans. Select low fat dairy, lean meats and poultry and eat fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna in oil) twice a week. When it comes to fats and oils, your best bets are those with 2 grams of saturated fat or less per serving such as liquid and tub margarines, canola, olive, corn, soybean and safflower oils.

Visit NHLBI for more information on cholesterol.

LDL-Cholesterol Levels

Less than 100 mg/dL - Optimal

100 to 129 mg/dL - Near Optimal/Above Optimal

130 to 159 mg/dL - Borderline High

160 to 189 mg/dL - High

190 mg/dL and above - Very High