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Cholesterol: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly



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Cholesterol. We’ve all heard about how high cholesterol can have negative effects on our health, like increasing the risk for heart disease or a heart attack. But what exactly is cholesterol, and how do we control it?

Although we usually think of cholesterol as some sort of evil being in our body, it is important to your health. Cholesterol, a waxy, fatty substance carried through the bloodstream by two different particles—low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL)—is essential for building cell membranes, producing hormones, and helping your metabolism work efficiently. LDL is considered the “bad” cholesterol because it deposits plaque within the arteries, while HDL, or the “good” cholesterol, transports excess cholesterol out of the arteries and to the liver, where it can be broken down. In other words, a high level of HDLs may reduce the risk of a heart attack, while a high level of LDLs may raise your risk of a heart attack.

Ideally, you should aim to keep your cholesterol levels within these ranges:

Total Cholesterol: 125 to 200 mg/dL

LDL cholesterol: less than 100 mg/dL

HDL cholesterol:  40mg/dL or higher for men, 50 mg/dL or higher for women

If your doctor tells you that you have elevated cholesterol levels, there are a few lifestyle changes you can make to change this:

Focus on including these foods and activities for healthy cholesterol levels:

  1. Increase fiber – Fiber binds to cholesterol molecules and takes them out of the body via the digestive system. Sources of fiber include beans, legumes, whole grains, oats, apples, strawberries and citrus fruits. Consider having oats with flaxseed and sliced fruit. Tip: Be sure to drink plenty of water when increasing the fiber in your diet to prevent unwanted stomach pain.
  2. Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids – Sources include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and deep sea tuna. These reduce LDL cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease. Try some salmon topped with peach or pineapple salsa to spice up your week. Tip: The Mediterranean and Dash Diet are two good examples that can help you reduce bad cholesterol levels.
  3. Exercise – I know we all work long hours, but you don’t have to go to a gym to be physically active. Moderate physical activity can help raise HDL cholesterol. Try simple tasks like taking a quick walk around the office a few times a day, parking farther away from the office, taking the stairs, or finding an exercise buddy!

Focus on reducing or eliminating these foods and habits for healthy cholesterol levels:

  1. Reduce saturated fats – These are found in butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods.
  2. Eliminate trans fats – Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have been modified by hydrogenation. The United States banned food companies from using trans fats, but they are allowed to round down if the amount of trans fat per serving is less than 0.5g. This means that they can claim there is 0g of trans fats in the product, which may not technically be true. Always look at the product label for ingredients such as “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oil. If it contains this, it has trans fat. These can still add up quickly if you are not careful to avoid them.  Also avoid prepackaged baked goods, fast foods, some frozen pizzas, and non-dairy coffee creamers.
  3. Limit added sugars – Added sugars lower your “good” cholesterol. If you have something with added sugar in it, make sure that you are getting some nutrients that your body needs as well. For example, if you want to eat ice cream, try to also enjoy a piece of fruit or some nuts along with it.  Aim for portion control when consuming added sugars.
  4. Reduce portions – Sometimes it can be difficult to avoid unhealthy fats and sugars. Tip: Instead of each person having a serving of French fries or special dessert, consider ordering one dish for the whole table. This way you can have a taste without all the fat and calories.
  5. Quit smoking – The benefits will multiply quickly!
    • Within 20 minutes of quitting, your blood pressure and heart rate recover from the cigarette-induced spike.
    • Within three months of quitting, your blood circulation and lung function begin to improve.
    • Within a year of quitting, your risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker (mayoclinic.org).