Most of us now recognize the importance of eating a healthy diet and participating in a regular fitness routine. Not only can these two lifestyle changes help you to manage your weight, but they can also help to increase your energy and regulate your mood. But sticking to a healthy diet and exercise routine can also have a direct impact on your cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a term that you are probably familiar with, but you may not be completely sure how cholesterol works in your body. You may also be unaware of how your cholesterol levels could be affecting your overall health. Here are some of the basics about cholesterol and a few tips on how to keep your cholesterol levels in check!
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance that is found throughout your bloodstream and in many of your body's cells. It is created by your body and also ingested in various foods that you eat. It is transported through your bloodstream to various parts of your body by special proteins, known as lipoproteins. Present in high levels in your brain, spinal cord, and liver, cholesterol is a necessary component of any healthy body. Cholesterol plays a role in building and maintaining cells, developing sex hormones, and strengthening the immune system.
Why Worry About Cholesterol?
It is important to keep tabs on your cholesterol levels fairly frequently. Though cholesterol does perform an important function in your body, if your cholesterol levels become too high, it can increase your risk for developing some serious health risks. In particular, high cholesterol is one of the primary risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease. And having cardiovascular disease can significantly increase your risks of suffering from:
- vascular problems
- heart attack
In fact, almost 37% of all deaths in the United States can be attributed to cardiovascular disease.
Good vs Bad Cholesterol
There are two main types of cholesterol found in your bloodstream: good and bad cholesterol. It is important to keep your levels of good cholesterol up and your levels of bad cholesterol down.
- LDL: LDL cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, is one type of cholesterol found in your body. This type of cholesterol is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol, because it can easily build up inside of your arteries. When found in large quantities, LDL cholesterol can form a thick deposit around the insides of the arteries, known as plaque. This can increase your risk for developing a clog in your arteries, which can result in heart attack or stroke.
- HDL: HDL cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein, is the second type of cholesterol found in your body. HDL cholesterol is often known as "good" cholesterol. HDL cholesterol appears to protect your body against heart attack, working to carry cholesterol out of your body and removing excess plaque buildup in your arteries.
What are Healthy Cholesterol Levels?
It is important to make sure that you have healthy levels of cholesterol in your bloodstream. Cholesterol levels are calculated in a number of different ways:
Total Blood Cholesterol
Total blood cholesterol is a measurement of your levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol. It is measured in milligrams per deciliter of blood:
- Less than 200mg/dL: If your total blood cholesterol is less than 200, you have a healthy cholesterol level.
- 200 to 239mg/dL: If your total blood cholesterol is between 200 and 239 you have borderline high blood cholesterol. You could be at increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
- Above 240mg/dL: If your total blood cholesterol is greater than 240mg/dL you are at increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease.
It is important to measure your LDL cholesterol levels. If these levels are too high, you increase your risk of developing clogs in your arteries, which can cause heart attack and stroke. Additionally, it is possible to have healthy cholesterol levels, but high levels of LDL cholesterol. Therefore, this measurement is essential for keeping tabs on your cholesterol health. LDL levels that are less than 130mg/dL are acceptable and healthy. If your LDL is greater than 160mg/dL, you could be at increased risk for heart disease.
Your cholesterol ratio is a measurement of the ratio of your total blood cholesterol to your levels of HDL cholesterol. To find this ratio, simply divide your HDL levels into your total cholesterol level. A ratio below 5:1 is optimal for heart health.
Keeping Your Cholesterol Levels Healthy
A few simple lifestyle changes can help you to keep your cholesterol at healthy levels, lowering your risk of heart attack and stroke. Try these suggestions out!
- Eat a Low Fat Diet: Focus on eating unsaturated, trans-fat free foods as saturated fats and trans-fats work to increase cholesterol levels. Eat lean meats and fish, and trim all excess fat prior to food preparation.
- Focus on Low Cholesterol Foods: Only animal products, including meat, eggs, cheese, and fish, contain cholesterol. Try to reduce the amount of cholesterol-containing products that you eat. Instead, try adding fruits, vegetables, and grains to your diet, as these foods do not contain cholesterol.
- Exercise: Regular exercise can actually lower your LDL levels while increasing your HDL levels. Try to get in 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day.
- Get Your Levels Tested: Be sure to get your cholesterol levels measured every two years. If your cholesterol is elevated, you might want to opt for more frequent screening.
- Lose Weight: If you are overweight or obese, you may benefit from losing a few pounds. Weight loss can help to lower total blood cholesterol.
- Find out About Medications: If a healthy diet and exercise aren't enough to lower your cholesterol, consider looking into taking a cholesterol-lowering medication. Speak with your health care provider about your options.