Understanding cholesterol and knowing how to maintain proper cholesterol levels are key elements in the prevention of strokes and heart disease. Unlike what you may think, cholesterol is not all bad. Your body needs to maintain certain levels of cholesterol to function properly. It is a structural component of your cell membranes and is also used to produce hormones, vitamin D and bile acids. It is only when the cholesterol level gets exceedingly high or gets out of balance that problems occur. High blood cholesterol is one of the primary causes of heart disease, which is now the leading cause of death in the United States as well as worldwide.
Distinguishing Good Cholesterol and Bad Cholesterol
Cholesterol travels through your blood in the form of lipoproteins. There are three distinguished categories based on the protein density of the molecule.
- Low-density lipoproteins (LDLs): these are “bad” cholesterol. This type of cholesterol tends to coagulate and form plaques that lead to atherosclerosis and other heart diseases.
- Very low-density lipoproteins (VLDLs): as the name suggest, this type of cholesterol has similar properties as LDLs, and are very bad for your health. High level of VLDLs can significantly increase your chance of a heart attack.
- High-density lipoproteins (HDLs): these are the “good” cholesterol. HDLs travel through your blood to pick up bad cholesterol and take them to your liver for recycling or excretion. You want your blood HDL level to be high relative to your total cholesterol level so that you will be better protected against plaque formation.
When Do You Have High Blood Cholesterol?
The best way to know if you have a higher-than-normal blood cholesterol level is by taking a cholesterol test. A simple non-fasting cholesterol test tells you your HDL level compared to your total cholesterol level.
- Optimum total cholesterol: your total blood cholesterol should be kept to lower than 200. If your blood cholesterol concentration exceeds 200, your risk for heart disease is significantly higher.
- Optimum HDL: to keep yourself safe from heart disease, you need to raise your blood HDL level to above 60.
- Total cholesterol versus HDL: the best way to predict your risk potential for heart disease is by comparing your HDL concentration against your total blood cholesterol. This is done by dividing your total cholesterol amount by your HDL reading. Your goal is to keep this ratio below 3.5.
How to Optimize Your Blood Cholesterol
Here are some tips on how to keep your total cholesterol level low and HDL high.
- Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits: these are rich sources of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytosterols, which can help reduce your blood cholesterol.
- Minimize saturated fat intake: choose fish and white meat over red meat. Stay clear of animal organs and fried food. These are high in saturated fat and cholesterol content.
- Eat more cholesterol-reducing foods: walnuts, almonds, tuna, salmon and avocado are natural cholesterol reducers.
- Exercise: doing 30 minutes of exercise everyday for five days per week can help effectively reduce your total cholesterol and increase HDL.
- Weight loss: being overweight can lead to high blood cholesterol levels. Stay within your normal weight range to optimize your blood cholesterol.
- Take a fish oil supplement: omega-3 fatty acids can reduce your total cholesterol and increase your HDL.