September is National Cholesterol Education Month and therefore serves as a reminder of the importance of getting your cholesterol checked, taking steps to reduce your levels if elevated and learning diet and lifestyle behaviors that support healthy cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance and is part of each of your body’s cells. Cholesterol is important for normal cell function including production of hormones, bile acids and vitamin D. Your body produces cholesterol on a daily basis, called endogenous cholesterol.
While a small amount of cholesterol is healthy, it can become dangerous when there is an excess amount found in the blood. The result can be the incorporation of cholesterol into blood vessel walls where it hardens and becomes plaque. Over time, a build-up of plaque can harden and narrow blood vessels, a condition known as atherosclerosis, which is a major risk factor for heart disease.
There are two main forms of cholesterol found in the body. Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol because it is being deposited into the body’s tissues, including blood vessels. A high level of LDL has been shown to significantly increase the risk of heart disease.
The second form, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol is considered “good” cholesterol because it is destined to leave the body. HDL cholesterol also affects the chance of heart disease in that a low value will increase your risk of cardiovascular issues.
The first step in knowing where you stand is by getting your blood cholesterol measured. This is a simple lab test ordered by a doctor, which provides valuable information on total cholesterol as well as LDL and HDL levels. Healthy blood cholesterol levels are less than 200 milligrams per deciliter for total cholesterol, less than 100 mg/dL for LDL cholesterol and greater than 60 mg/dL for HDL cholesterol.
A blood cholesterol test is the only way of knowing whether you are at risk of high cholesterol. Referred to as a silent killer, high cholesterol produces no other signs or symptoms until there are cardiovascular complications. Eastern Michigan University’s Snow Health Center offers blood cholesterol screenings for EMU students.
There are many factors that can affect your cholesterol level. While you don’t have control over your genetics, age or sex, your diet is something that can be modified and can greatly affect blood cholesterol levels. Three nutrients in particular have been shown to raise LDL cholesterol and include saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol found in food.
Saturated fats are primarily animal fats and are solid at room temperature. Examples include whole-milk dairy products, fatty cuts of meat and poultry with the skin on. Trans fats are most often found in foods made with hydrogenated oils such baked goods, hard margarines and shortening. Cholesterol from foods also affects your blood cholesterol level, but to a lesser extent than saturated and trans fats. Cholesterol is found only in animal foods such as meat, poultry, egg yolks, shrimp and dairy products.
Reading food labels is helpful for limiting your intake of saturated and trans fats and cholesterol. Keep saturated fat to less than 10 percent of calories, trans fat as close to zero as possible and cholesterol to less than 300 milligrams per day. If you have high cholesterol your doctor or dietitian may recommend additional diet restrictions.
There are also foods to include in your diet that can help to reduce cholesterol and support healthy levels. Foods containing soluble are good for this. Soluble fiber acts to prevent cholesterol and fats from being absorbed into the blood stream.
Good sources of soluble fiber include oatmeal and oat bran, bananas, apples, peaches, berries and beans. Plant stanols and sterols are also recommended; these are plant-derived substances added to foods such as soft margarines and fortified orange juice.
Plant stanols and sterols work similar to soluble fiber in that they help to block cholesterol absorption from the blood stream.
The following are some low-fat, low-cholesterol ideas to satisfy your snack cravings:
Non-fat Greek yogurt with fresh or frozen fruit
Whole-grain English muffin with natural peanut butter
Carrots and celery sticks with hummus
Reduced-fat oat granola
Oatmeal with pumpkin puree and soy milk
Reduced-fat cheese sticks
Pudding prepared with skim milk
Baked potato topped with bean chili
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