Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in all cells of the body. Your body needs some cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest foods. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs. However, cholesterol also is found in some of the foods you eat.
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.
There are 3 kinds of lipoproteins:
- LDL cholesterol sometimes is called “bad” cholesterol. A high LDL level leads to a buildup of cholesterol in your arteries. (Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to your body.)
- HDL cholesterol sometimes is called “good” cholesterol. This is because it carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver. Your liver removes the cholesterol from your body.
- Triglycerides are the chemical forms in which most fat exists in the body, as well as in food. They are present in blood plasma. Triglycerides, in association with cholesterol, form the plasma lipids (blood fat). Triglycerides in plasma originate either from fats in our food, or are made in the body from other energy sources, such as carbohydrates. Calories we consume but are not used immediately by our tissues are converted into triglycerides and stored in fat cells. When your body needs energy and there is no food as an energy source, triglycerides will be released from fat cells and used as energy – hormones control this process.
Causes of Cholesterol
Here are some factors which determines whether your LDL cholesterol is high or low, including:
- age (cholesterol levels increase with age)
- alcohol consumption
- gender (men have higher cholesterol)
- level of physical activity
- eating foods that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol
Symptoms of High Cholesterol
These can include:
- Narrowed coronary arteries in the heart (angina)
- Leg pain when exercising
- Blood clots and ruptured blood vessels
- Ruptured plaques
- Xanthomas – thick yellow patches on the skin, especially around the eyes
What you eat has a direct impact on your cholesterol level.
- Choose healthier fats. Saturated fat and trans fat raise your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. The most common sources of saturated fat in the diet are red meat, processed meats and dairy products that are not fat-free. Monounsaturated fat — found in olive and canola oils — is a healthier option. Avocados, almonds, pecans and walnuts are other sources of healthy fat.
- Avoid trans fats. Trans fats, which are often found in margarines and commercially baked cookies, crackers and snack cakes, are particularly bad for your cholesterol levels. Not only do trans fats increase your total LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, but they also lower your HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Foods listing “partially hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients contain trans fats.
- Limit your dietary cholesterol. The most concentrated sources of cholesterol include organ meats, egg yolks and whole milk products. Use lean cuts of meat and skim milk instead. Limit the intake of eggs to no more than 7 a week.
- Select whole grains. Various nutrients found in whole grains promote heart health. Choose whole-grain breads, whole-wheat pasta, whole-wheat flour and brown rice. Oatmeal and oat bran are other good choices.
- Stock up on fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are rich in dietary fiber, which can help lower cholesterol. Snack on seasonal fruits. Experiment with vegetable-based casseroles, soups and stir-fries.
- Eat heart-healthy fish. Eat more fish such as cod, tuna and halibut which have less total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than do meat and poultry. Salmon, mackerel and herring are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help promote heart health.
- Drink alcohol in moderation. Moderate use of alcohol may increase your levels of HDL cholesterol. If you choose to drink, do so in moderation. This means no more than one drink a day for women and one to two drinks a day for men.
- Lose weight. Excess weight contributes to high cholesterol. Losing even 5 to 10 pounds can help lower total cholesterol levels. Start by taking an honest look at your eating habits and daily routine. Consider your challenges to weight loss — and ways to overcome them. Set long-term, sustainable goals.
- Exercise regularly. Regular exercise can help improve your cholesterol levels. If you are not doing any exercise at all right now, try even 15 minutes of exercise a day several days of the week. Some exercise is much better than no exercise.
- Don’t smoke. Cigarette smoking increases your risk of heart disease because it damages your blood vessels and speeds up the accumulation of plaque within arteries.