Cholesterol isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, cholesterol – a
naturally occurring substance in all of us – is important to our health. Having
this fatty substance in our bloodstream helps us produce hormones, build cell walls,
and digest fat. But not all cholesterol is good, and many people’s cholesterol
levels are dangerously high.
There are two main types of cholesterol – good (high-density lipoproteins
or HDL) and bad (low-density lipoproteins or LDL). HDL transports excess cholesterol
from the bloodstream to the liver, where it’s broken down properly. This helps
prevent arteries from clogging. LDL circulates cholesterol in the blood. Too much
LDL can cause plaque build-up in the arteries, which can trigger a heart attack
Since high cholesterol usually has no symptoms until it’s too late, have your
cholesterol checked regularly. Most people should keep their LDL cholesterol below
130 mg/dL. Those with major risk factors, especially people with diabetes and heart
disease, should keep their LDL even lower: less than 100 mg/dL. Talk to your doctor
about the appropriate levels for you. By keeping your LDL low, your good HDL cholesterol
We get cholesterol naturally from our liver and also from what we eat, and both
controllable and uncontrollable factors can affect cholesterol. Since we can’t
do anything about our age or family history, it’s important to focus on what
we can control, like diet, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle.
Charles, a 62-year-old Kailua resident, knows the powerful effects that a healthy
lifestyle can have on cholesterol. Several years ago, a test indicated that his
total cholesterol was 249 mg/dL, about 50 points above the recommended limit. Not
wanting to start medication treatment, he talked to his doctor about how lifestyle
changes could help lower his cholesterol. He made a deal with his doctor that he
would get his cholesterol in check on his own by the end of the year.
Charles began controlling meal portions, making healthful food choices, and exercising
daily. Motivated by his daily mantra to “eat less, move more,” he avoided
saturated fat and walked about three miles every day. Gradually, he began to shed
pounds. Every pound he lost encouraged him to keep going.
Six months later, when Charles went back for a follow-up appointment with his doctor,
he had lost 30 pounds and got his total cholesterol under 200 mg dL, within the
healthy range. His doctor was amazed with his results and gave Charles the news
he hoped for – he wouldn’t need cholesterol-lowering medication.
In addition to losing weight and reducing his cholesterol, Charles became more confident,
motivated, and disciplined. He felt lighter and stronger. This encouraged him to
continue with his routine and lose another 15 pounds over the next few months.
Today, Charles admits that he isn’t as strict as he used to be, but he still
keeps a close eye on his weight and cholesterol. When they begin to creep back up,
he knows what he needs to do to get back in the healthy range. After the holidays
or a long vacation, for example, he’ll make an extra effort to follow his
mantra. “It can be a struggle to stay healthy all the time, especially as
you get older. But I know what I need to do for the best results,” he says.
“And I still don’t have to take cholesterol medication.”
A well-balanced diet full of fiber-rich vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy products,
lean meats, and healthy fats is the key to good heart health. Stick to moderate
amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (which raise HDL levels) and
avoid saturated and trans fats (which raise LDL levels). Exercising most days of
the week, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol, and avoiding tobacco will
also help keep your cholesterol at a healthy level. Cholesterol-lowering medications
are available and can be very effective if lifestyle changes don’t help.
Since high cholesterol can cause many other health problems, keeping your heart
healthy can help prevent disease and greatly improve your overall health. If you
have diabetes, this is even more important. Talk to your doctor about getting tested
and maintaining a healthy cholesterol level.