Understanding cholesterol: is it good, bad or both?

August 3, 2021

Many individuals concerned about their health want to know about their cholesterol level and whether or not they need to take action to improve it. As the Mayo Clinic states, “Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood. Your body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells, but high levels of cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.”

The dangers of high cholesterol

When you develop high cholesterol, you can put your health in danger. You see, high cholesterol can be a catalyst for developing fatty deposits within your blood vessels. As these deposits increase, the blood flow through your arteries can become restricted. If these deposits separate from your artery walls, they can form a clot putting you at high risk for a heart attack or stroke.

Defining cholesterol: HDL, LDL, total and triglycerides

The American Heart Association provides us with some simple descriptions of the various terms when talking about cholesterol.

HDL (high density lipoproteins) is what is commonly thought of as good cholesterol. These lipoproteins help remove bad cholesterol from your system. But too low a level of HDL increases risks to your heart.

LDL (low density lipoproteins) is the bad cholesterol you want to keep in balance. Too much of it in your body builds up the fat in your artery walls putting your heart health at risk.

Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your body. But they do store excess energy from your diet.

Total cholesterol is the score you get when combining your HDL, LDL and 20% of your Triglycerides.

When you visit your doctor for a routine physical, you usually receive these numbers after a blood draw. It helps inform your general heart health. Based on your age, your doctor usually wants to see you with higher HDL, lower LDL, lower triglycerides levels and an overall lower total cholesterol level.

What you should and should not eat for healthy cholesterol

As with most things concerning your health, making some lifestyle changes can help reduce your high cholesterol level. Start by eating a nutritious diet. Maintain a healthy weight. Exercise regularly. And don’t smoke. Of course, it’s important to check with your healthcare provider first but here are some foods to eat and foods to avoid for better overall health.

Foods To Eat:

Focus on foods low in saturated and trans fats such as:

  • A variety of fruits and vegetables.
  • A variety of whole grain foods such as whole-grain bread, cereal, pasta and brown rice.
  • Fat-free, 1% and low-fat milk products.
  • Skinless poultry and lean meats. When you choose to eat red meat and pork, select options labeled “loin” and “round.” These cuts usually have the least amount of fat.
  • Fatty fish such as salmon, trout, albacore tuna and sardines. Enjoy at least 8 ounces of non-fried fish each week.
  • Unsalted nuts, seeds, and legumes (dried beans or peas).
  • Non-tropical vegetable oils like canola, corn, olive, or safflower oils.

Foods To Avoid or Limit:

  • Foods with a lot of sodium (salt)
  • Sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Red meats and fatty meats that aren’t trimmed
  • Processed meats such as bologna, salami and sausage
  • Full-fat dairy products such as whole milk, cream, ice cream, butter and cheese
  • Baked goods made with saturated and trans fats such as donuts, cakes and cookies
  • Foods that list the words “hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients panel
  • Saturated oils like coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil
  • Solid fats like shortening, stick margarine and lard
  • Fried foods

What to do if you have high cholesterol

You can improve your cholesterol levels through diet, exercise and if needed, prescription medications. Based on your age and health history, your doctor will be the best source for recommending what’s right for you and your lifestyle.

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