ABCs of LDLs: How to lower your cholesterol (& why you should)
You may have heard it before at your yearly physical: “We got your blood test back, and your cholesterol seems a little/very high.” And then, panic ensues. Or not. Because although some people require medication to lower their cholesterol, others may benefit from some simple healthy diet changes.
But before we get to that, let’s first delve into the ABCs of cholesterol.
What exactly is cholesterol?
According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, “Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in all cells of the body.” Cholesterol travels through your bloodstream in small packages called lipoproteins, which are packages made of fat (lipid) on the inside and proteins on the outside.
You do need some cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D and substances that help you digest foods. In fact, your body naturally makes all the cholesterol it needs. The bad news: Cholesterol is also in some foods.
The good, the bad and the ugly
We’re sure you’ve heard the terms “good” and “bad” cholesterol, but we don’t blame you if you don’t have the faintest idea what the difference is.
According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, there are two kinds of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol throughout your body: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).
LDL cholesterol is the “bad” kind. A high LDL level leads to a buildup of cholesterol in your arteries. Together with other substances, it can form plaque, a thick, hard deposit that can narrow the arteries and make them less flexible. If a clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery, you can suffer a heart attack or stroke, says the American Heart Association.
HDL cholesterol is the “good” cholesterol. This type carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver, which removes the cholesterol from your body. High levels of HDL seem to protect against heart attack. Low levels of HDL, though, can increase the risk of heart disease.
Triglyceride is a form of fat made in the body. Elevated triglycerides can be due to obesity, physical inactivity, cigarette smoking, excess alcohol consumption and a diet high in carbohydrates (60% of total calories or more). People with high triglycerides often have a high total cholesterol level, including a high LDL (bad) level and a low HDL (good) level.
Why you need to listen to your doc
People with high cholesterol can develop fatty deposits in their blood vessels, which eventually make it hard for enough blood to flow through arteries. Your heart may not get as much oxygen-rich blood as it needs, which increases the risk of a heart attack, says the Mayo Clinic
Lowering your cholesterol can slow, reduce or stop the buildup of plaque in your arteries. It also may reduce the risk of plaque rupturing and causing blood clots.
Natural ways to lower your cholesterol
Luckily, lowering your cholesterol sometimes can just mean making different food choices — and exercising a little willpower.
- Eat less meat: Make sure to trim off the fat and skin from meats and poultry, and avoid fatty cuts of beef, pork and lamb, according to the Harvard Health Publications from Harvard Medical School.
- Choose low-fat dairy: Avoid whole milk or cream products.
- Cut down on saturated fat: Use liquid cooking oils rather than butter or margarine. Bake, broil, roast, steam or stew — anything but frying, please.
- Choose olive oil: This super healthy oil contains a mix of antioxidants that can lower your “bad” 0cholesterol but leave your “good” cholesterol untouched, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Reduce dietary cholesterol: Eat less than 200 mg of dietary cholesterol a day. Limit egg yolks, and eat lean meat, fish and poultry — no more than 6 ounces per day. Steer clear of cholesterol-rich organ meats, such as liver, brains and kidneys.
- Eat complex carbohydrates and fiber: This includes fruits and vegetables, whole-grain products and legumes. Choose water-soluble fiber, such as that found in oat bran and fruits.
- Go nuts: Nuts are associated with a lower risk of heart disease, but go easy as they have a lot of calories.
- Add fish: Oily fish contain the essential fatty acids known as omega-3s and omega-6s. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fish a week. The highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids are in mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, salmon and halibut.
- Reduce salt: Diets high in salt increase risk of hypertension.
- Avoid trans fats (like the plague): They raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol. Try to ban foods that list hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil among their first ingredients.
- Drink in moderation: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than one drink a day for women, and one or two drinks a day for men.
If you change your diet for three months with no results, consult your physician and a dietitian. If the numbers still don’t change after six months, you may need to consider medications.