American Heart Month: Watch Your Cholesterol Intake
Living in a fast-food nation where burgers and fries are a common meal, adults are faced with the challenge of watching their cholesterol intake.
“People who have high blood cholesterol have a greater chance of getting heart disease,” said ARH Cardiologist Kenneth Dulnuan, M.D. "The higher the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood, the greater your chance is of getting heart disease.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in all cells of the body. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs in order to make hormones, vitamin D and substances that help you digest foods. However, cholesterol also is found in some of the foods you eat, which means you must watch your cholesterol intake.
Cholesterol travels through your bloodstream in small packages called lipoproteins. These packages are made of fat (lipid) on the inside and proteins on the outside. LDL cholesterol refers to “bad” cholesterol. A high LDL level leads to a buildup of cholesterol in your arteries, which are blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to your body. HDL cholesterol is called “good” cholesterol, because it carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver. Your liver removes the cholesterol from your body.
High blood cholesterol is a condition in which you have too much cholesterol in your blood. By itself, the condition usually has no signs or symptoms. That is why many people don’t know their cholesterol levels are too high.
“It is important to have your cholesterol levels checked during your annual physical,” said Dr. Dulnuan. “Once you know your levels, you and your healthcare provider can determine if steps need to be taken to improve your cholesterol levels.”
According to Dr. Dulnuan, lowering your cholesterol may slow, reduce or even stop the buildup of plaque in your arteries. See the “Factor You Can Control” section for details.
Factors You Can Control
Cholesterol is found in foods that come from animal sources, such as egg yolks, meat and cheese. Some foods have fats that raise your cholesterol level. For example, saturated fat raises your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol level more than anything else in your diet. Saturated fat is found in some meats, dairy products, chocolate, baked goods and deep-fried and processed foods.
Trans fatty acids (trans fats) raise your LDL cholesterol and lower your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Trans fats are made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to harden it. Trans fats are found in some fried and processed foods.
Limiting foods with cholesterol, saturated fat and trans fats can help you control your cholesterol levels.
Physical Activity and Weight
Lack of physical activity can lead to weight gain. Being overweight tends to raise your LDL level, lower your HDL level and increase your total cholesterol level. (Total cholesterol is a measure of the total amount of cholesterol in your blood, including LDL and HDL.)
Routine physical activity can help you lose weight and lower your LDL cholesterol. Being physically active also can help you raise your HDL cholesterol level.
Factors You Can’t Control
High blood cholesterol can run in families. An inherited condition called familial hypercholesterolemia causes very high LDL cholesterol. (“Inherited” means the condition is passed from parents to children through genes.) This condition begins at birth, and it may cause a heart attack at an early age.
Age and Sex
Starting at puberty, men often have lower levels of HDL cholesterol than women. As women and men age, their LDL cholesterol levels often rise. Before age 55, women usually have lower LDL cholesterol levels than men. However, after age 55, women can have higher LDL levels than men.
Your doctor will diagnose high blood cholesterol by checking the cholesterol levels in your blood. A blood test called a lipoprotein panel can measure your cholesterol levels. Before the test, you’ll need to fast (not eat or drink anything but water) for nine to 12 hours.
The lipoprotein panel will give your doctor information about your:
- Total cholesterol. Total cholesterol is a measure of the total amount of cholesterol in your blood, including low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
- HDL cholesterol. HDL, or “good,” cholesterol helps remove cholesterol from your arteries.
- Triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood. Some studies suggest that a high level of triglycerides in the blood may raise the risk of coronary heart disease, especially in women.
If it’s not possible to have a lipoprotein panel, knowing your total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol can give you a general idea about your cholesterol levels.
Your risk for heart disease and heart attack goes up as your LDL cholesterol level rises and your number of heart disease risk factors increases.
Some people are at high risk for heart attacks because they already have heart disease. Other people are at high risk for heart disease because they have diabetes or more than one heart disease risk factor.
Talk with your doctor about lowering your cholesterol and your risk for heart disease. Also, check the list to find out whether you have risk factors that affect your LDL cholesterol goal:
- Cigarette smoking
- High blood pressure (140/90 mmHg or higher), or you’re on medicine to treat high blood pressure
- Low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (less than 40 mg/dL)
- Family history of early heart disease (heart disease in father or brother before age 55; heart disease in mother or sister before age 65)
- Age (men 45 years or older; women 55 years or older)
Source: National Institute of Health, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute