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Down With the Bad, Up With the Good

How to Maintain or Achieve Healthy Cholesterol Levels

High blood cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for heart and vascular disease, and it affects millions of people. In fact, in the United States alone, 73.5 million adults have high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol. And, it’s estimated that those with high total cholesterol numbers have twice the risk of heart disease than those with ideal levels.

The good news is, there are many things a person can do to lower the bad and raise the good.

Know the Facts

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that comes from two places — your own body, and the food you eat. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need, but it produces a surplus when you eat a diet high in saturated and trans fats. Saturated and trans fats are found in foods like fatty or processed meats, full-fat dairy products and fried foods like French fries and doughnuts. This excess blood cholesterol can form plaque in your arteries, which makes it more difficult for your heart to circulate blood and can create dangerous, life-threatening blood clots. If a clot blocks an artery to the heart, it can cause a heart attack. If a clot blocks an artery to the brain, it can cause a stroke.

There are two different types of cholesterol — low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL is considered “bad” cholesterol because it causes plaque buildup in arteries. If your LDL levels are higher than recommended, you might be at an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

HDL is considered “good” cholesterol because it helps remove that excess cholesterol. Higher levels of HDL are linked to a lower risk of heart attack.

In order to achieve or maintain desirable cholesterol levels, you first have to know where you stand. Your primary care physician can run simple blood tests that will tell you exactly what your levels are.

Eat Well

To lower or maintain blood cholesterol levels, it’s important to eat a heart-healthy diet that includes a regular intake of plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and legumes. Low-fat dairy and poultry are also important, and unsaturated vegetable oils such as safflower, canola or olive oil are good for you, too.

Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, flax, flaxseed oil and chia seeds, can also help lower triglyceride levels, another type of blood lipid associated with cardiovascular disease that often accompanies a low HDL. Avocados (high in unsaturated fat), red wine (in moderation) and high-fiber fruits and grains like apples, pears, prunes, oatmeal and barley, are also known to decrease LDL-cholesterol and can help increase HDL levels. Vegetarian dishes also offer a great way to get cholesterol-friendly protein and nutrients without all the meat.

Most importantly, limit or avoid foods that are high in saturated and trans fats like fatty cuts of meat, chips, butter, cakes, cookies, and stick or hydrogenated margarine or shortening. These foods can contribute to artery-clogging cholesterol.

Exercise More

Starting a regular exercise program can have many positive effects when it comes to controlling cholesterol. Exercise can help raise HDL, lower LDL and triglycerides, improve blood flow throughout your body, send more oxygen to your muscles, and lower your blood pressure.

Exercising can also help you lose weight and reduce your body mass index (BMI). Your healthcare professional can suggest the best type of exercise and frequency to help you reach your goals.

Don’t Smoke

If you don’t smoke, don’t start. And if you do smoke, now is a great time to quit. Even after changing your diet and exercise routine, smoking can prevent the improvement of your cholesterol levels, while quitting can result in positive changes in your cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Exercising will be easier too, and your risk of heart attack and heart disease will decrease over time.

Follow Your Prescription

Even when following a strict diet, sticking to an exercise routine and quitting smoking, some people still need a little extra help controlling their blood cholesterol. In fact, some people have high blood cholesterol simply because of genetics. About 1.5 million people in the United States have a form of high cholesterol called familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic disorder that prevents the liver from removing excess LDL cholesterol from the blood.

For most of these people, cholesterol-lowering medication is a great option. If your physician prescribes medication, be sure to take it exactly as directed. And when your cholesterol numbers start improving, it’s not a sign to stop taking the prescription. Never skip a dose or stop taking a medication until your physician tells you it’s OK.

Like most things in life, it’s hard to fix a problem if you don’t know it exists. Check your risk potential and be sure to get annual physical exams that include cholesterol tests. Talk to your healthcare provider for a personalized plan that will help you maintain or achieve healthy cholesterol levels.