February is heart health month. This campaign, which is in it’s 57th year, is intended to bring awareness to one of the most prevalent causes of disease and death for U.S. adults, cardiovascular disease. Due to COVID-19 more and more individuals avoid going to their primary care doctors and hospitals for regular checkups or when symptoms occur, being aware of what habits can help prevent or manage heart disease is more important than ever.
You have probably heard that maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is an important part of heart health. To many people, the phrase “healthy cholesterol levels” may not make much sense. Cholesterol, after all, has gotten quite a bad reputation over the past few decades. In actuality, cholesterol is quite essential—our bodies need cholesterol to build cells. It’s when you have too much of certain types of cholesterol, such as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol or very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol, that problems can occur.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance which your body needs to build cells and make vitamins and other hormones. Cholesterol comes from two sources, our own bodies and the foods we eat. Our bodies can produce cholesterol, in fact, the body can produce all the cholesterol it needs. We can also get cholesterol from animal products in the diet, such as red meat or dairy. Cholesterol comes in various forms. As previously mentioned there are LDL and VLDL cholesterol types (known as “bad” cholesterol) which, when joined with fats, can build up along your artery walls. A heart attack or stroke is more likely to happen when normal blood flow is reduced due to the clogging and narrowing of these inner artery walls.
On the other hand, the high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL, otherwise known as the “good” kind) carries away LDL cholesterol in order to help protect your arteries and lower the chances of dangerous cardiac events.
Cholesterol is a fascinating substance. It is important to know your cholesterol levels, especially if you have a family history of cardiovascular disease or are over the age of 45 so you can make the most educated decisions when it comes to your heart health. Since diet and lifestyle play a big role in managing cholesterol levels, having the right information can help you make any necessary changes to keep you healthier for longer.
Why and How Healthy Cholesterol Levels Are Measured
You won’t usually have symptoms if you have high cholesterol, so it’s crucial to get in your regular doctor visits. During these checkups, your physician can get a good look at your cholesterol through a quick and easy blood test. If you are 20 years old or older or have other risk factors—such as smoking or having a family history of heart disease—it’s a good idea to get tested at least every four to six years.
When your doctor runs the results of your blood test, you will get your HDL (“good”) and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol numbers. Cholesterol levels will be shown in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Your doctor will be able to use these numbers—as well as the other main risk factors like family history, blood pressure results, and lifestyle choices—to give a fair prediction of your “lifetime” or 10-year risk for a stroke or heart attack.
When getting your cholesterol levels tested, you may also hear the term “lipid panel” or “lipid profile” being used. This test sheds light on things beyond HDL and LDL like your triglycerides and total serum (or blood) cholesterol.
Doctors like to think in broader terms since various factors play a role in your cardiovascular risk, and a lipid panel helps paint a more complete picture of where you’re at with your heart health. In the past, doctors were focusing more on the two numbers alone—LDL and HDL. This failed to tell the whole story of a person’s cardiovascular health. Today, the American Heart Association’s most updated Cholesterol Management Guide for Healthcare Practitioners is endorsing this more integrated type of approach.
You may find it interesting that women often have a higher level of the so-called good cholesterol (HDL) than men. Conversely, having a high blood triglyceride count, being too sedentary, and being overweight will typically lead to lower levels of this helpful cholesterol. This is just one of many reasons exercise can be so valuable to your life.
Of course, there are other factors that you may not have as much control over—such as genetics or being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. This is why everyone should stay on top of their heart health with regular trips to the doctor. Knowledge is power—if you don’t know that you do not have healthy cholesterol levels, you won’t be able to help yourself get to a better place.
More on Your Total Serum (or Blood) Cholesterol Score
Let’s dive a little further into this one. As you saw earlier, this test component is actually a blend of several different measurements to get the most accurate image of your blood. The score you get for your total blood cholesterol comes from combining your HDL, LDL, and 20 percent of your triglyceride results.
Remember, normal cholesterol levels are not the sole focus, as doctors want as accurate a picture as possible since there are so many things that can contribute to your cardiovascular health. Always consider your other possible risk factors in conjunction with your test results.
Things That Affect Healthy Cholesterol Levels
The cholesterol your body needs is produced in the liver. The rest comes from food, particularly foods that come from animals. Some sources of dietary cholesterol are beef, poultry, and dairy products high in trans and saturated fats. Foods such as these may lead the liver to produce more cholesterol than it would have on its own. Additionally, palm and coconut oil—two foods commonly found in baked goods—can increase your cholesterol production.
If you have borderline high cholesterol, a diet of foods high in cholesterol can push your numbers over the edge. If you want healthy cholesterol levels, you may want to decrease your consumption of unhealthy foods and frequently exercise, as failing to do so can raise your LDL fairly easily.
Tips for Maintaining Healthy Cholesterol Levels
To improve your cardiovascular health, refrain from smoking; achieve and maintain a healthy weight; eat low-fat, heart-healthy foods; and stay active. If your cholesterol levels remain stagnant, it’s likely due to things like family history or factors you cannot help on your own. In this case, your doctor can set you up with medicines and treatment plans to suit your needs.
The American Heart Association recommends you make saturated fats only five to six percent of your daily calorie intake to help yourself reach—and keep—healthy cholesterol levels. You can start to do this by limiting how often and how much red meat and whole dairy products you eat. When it comes to dairy, low-fat (skim) and 1% milk are best. It would help if you also tried to stay away from greasy foods that include saturated and trans fats. On the occasions that you do choose to indulge in a crispy, fried snack, try selecting one that has been fried in a healthier option, like vegetable oil.
Poultry, fish, nuts, and whole grains are the kinds of foods everyone should be eating daily for snacks and meals. When enjoying poultry, remove the skin; and when it comes to meat, go for lean. For pork, in particular, you’ll want to look for cuts labeled “round” or “loin”—these cuts typically have the least amount of fat. Fruits and vegetables can offer you fiber, and studies show that a diet high in fiber can help lower your bad cholesterol by nine percent.1 Also, try staying away from foods with added sugars.
More Ideas on Foods to Eat for Healthy Cholesterol Levels
Try these cooking tips to make sure you’re looking out for your heart health on a regular basis:
- Boil, roast, or bake meat and poultry, and use a rack so the fat can drain off
- Use low-sugar fruit juice, wine, or marinade to add flavor instead of basting using drippings
- Instead of pan-frying, go for grilling—but if you do pan-fry, try using an oil low in saturated fat, like olive oil
- Cut off any fat you see before cooking meat to remove the excess
- Smaller portions of high-calorie dishes will go a long way and help you feel more full
- Instead of regular cheese, aim for a low-sodium, low-fat selection
- Stay away from foods that list “hydrogenated oils” and solid fats such as shortening, sticks of margarine, and lard whenever you can
Taking What You Learned to Heart: Go a Step Further
Your heart health is everything—don’t forget to pay attention to your cardiovascular system. Understandably, many “fun” foods are the ones with the unhealthy ingredients in them, but with the advice in this post, you can swap for healthier replacements that still taste great. Maybe you won’t even miss those snacks that can throw off your healthy cholesterol levels!
You’ll also want to check out this FREE sample report to get a sense of what an individualized one might look like if you choose to take your health goals to the next level this year. We hope you do, as you’ll learn more about your body and be able to make the best decisions for YOU.
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1. Hunninghake DB, Miller VT, Larosa JC, et al. Long-term treatment of hypercholesterolemia with dietary fiber. The American Journal of Medicine. 1994;97(6):504-508. doi:10.1016/0002-9343(94)90344-1.