Chances are you have heard of cholesterol, but you may be confused about the factors that can impact cholesterol levels. An indicator for risk of heart disease, the National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that all adults over age 20 check their cholesterol levels at least every five years, more frequently for older adults and people considered at risk for heart disease. Children who are at risk for heart disease — those who have a family history, are overweight or obese — should also be checked. Testing is done through a fasting blood test.
dietary vs. blood
The two types of cholesterol are dietary and blood. Dietary cholesterol is found in animal products, and blood cholesterol is mostly produced by the liver and is found in the bloodstream. Cholesterol is needed for our body to function properly, but adults are able to produce all of the cholesterol they need without consuming any dietary cholesterol. Young children, on the other hand, need some dietary cholesterol for proper development, which is why whole milk is recommended for children ages 1 to 2.
A cholesterol test will check your blood cholesterol. The process will provide a total cholesterol level, along with a high-density lipoprotein (HDL) number and an low-density lipoprotein (LDL) number. These lipoproteins are actually vehicles for cholesterol to move throughout the body. I find it easiest to remember the good cholesterol from the bad by thinking of LDL as "lousy cholesterol" and HDL as "happy cholesterol."
LDL takes cholesterol from the liver to cells throughout your body, depositing some cholesterol on the walls of your arteries, causing them to harden and eventually become blocked. If your LDL number is high, your risk for heart disease is high.
Your HDL collects cholesterol throughout the body and returns it to the liver, removing it from the body. A high HDL reduces your risk for heart disease.
Though there are some ways to control cholesterol, not everyone will be able to do so through lifestyle changes. Genetics does play a role, but even if your high cholesterol is genetic, it is still important to implement lifestyle changes; you may be able to improve your cholesterol levels in conjunction with medication.
LDL levels should ideally be under 100 milligrams per deciliter. If you have a high LDL level, try limiting not only dietary cholesterol, but also saturated and trans fats. These types of fats are found in animal products, including cheese, butter, cream, milks with fat (especially whole and 2 percent); and fatty meats, such as marbled beef and chicken with skin. Saturated fats are also found in tropical plant oils, such as coconut oils and in cocoa butter. Trans fats are composed of hydrogenated oils — a term to look for in ingredient lists on food packaging — and are often found in processed foods.
Unsaturated fats, both poly and mono, are considered heart healthy compared to saturated and trans fats. Polyunsaturated fats can lower total cholesterol, including LDL, while monounsaturated fats tend to increase HDL. These fats are liquid at room temperature and are found in many vegetable oils, such as olive, canola, soybean and sunflower. Omega 3 fatty acids and Omega 6 fatty acids are both polyunsaturated.
To help control your cholesterol through lifestyle changes:
▶ Maintain a healthy weight, and lose weight through healthy long-term changes if necessary.
▶ Eat a diet low in saturated and trans fat and cholesterol. Changes may include switching to lower-fat dairy, eating leaner cuts of meats and limiting convenience foods.
▶ Eat more fiber. Soluble fiber may help reduce cholesterol levels, and insoluble fiber can assist weight control. Changes to achieve this may include eating more whole-grain products, nuts, seeds and legumes, and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
▶ Get a least 30 to 60 minutes of vigorous activity most days of the week. Exercise raises HDL levels and lowers LDL.
Jordy Kivett is a nutrition educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. For more information, contact her at 561-7450.