The Skinny on Cholesterol
Here's what you need to know to keep yours low
By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
It can be a nightmare, trying to sort through all the news on good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, saturated fats, trans fats, and all those other hard-to-pronounce fats.
Fear no more. Read on for a primer on everything you need to know about cholesterol (Call it Cholesterol 101).
Cholesterol is a type of waxy substance (called a lipid) that your body needs for many functions, including the production of new cells.
You get cholesterol from two sources: Internally, your body makes cholesterol; and externally, you get cholesterol from foods you eat.
Though it seems logical that foods containing cholesterol would raise levels of cholesterol in your blood, the worst dietary culprits are actually foods high in saturated fats (mostly from animal sources) and/or trans fats (often found in commercially prepared products).
Here are a few examples of foods high in those two types of fat:
Think of cholesterol as sort of like a chocolate M&M in the blood: the center is the cholesterol, and the outer shell is a protein "carrier" that transports the molecule through the blood. The molecule it carries is called a lipoprotein, and it is classified as either a low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called "bad" cholesterol, or high-density (HDL), the "good" cholesterol.
What makes them "good" or "bad" is determined by the amount of cholesterol center and protein shell. The good cholesterol has more protein and less cholesterol; the bad cholesterol has more cholesterol and less protein. The composition of the good cholesterol molecule prevents the buildup of cholesterol in your arteries. But the bad cholesterol molecule can lead to buildup, and eventual blockage, of your arteries.
The Problem With High Cholesterol
If your diet is too high in saturated and/or trans fats, or if you have an inherited condition, the cholesterol in your blood can reach dangerously high levels. Other factors, like diabetes and hypothyroidism, can also raise your blood cholesterol.
High levels of cholesterol can put you at risk for a host of life-threatening cardiovascular (heart and circulatory system) diseases. To reduce the risk of these diseases, your goal is to lower total cholesterol and to aim for high levels of good cholesterol and low levels of bad cholesterol. And one of the best routes to a healthier heart is a cholesterol-lowering diet.
Your doctor will determine if you are a candidate for cholesterol-lowering medication based on your blood cholesterol profile. But even those on medication can benefit from lifestyle changes such as a healthy diet, regular exercise, weight loss, and smoking cessation.
Indeed, one of the best ways to prevent and control high cholesterol is by eating healthy, exercising, and losing weight (if you're too heavy). The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein, with a limit of 300 mg of cholesterol per day, and less than 30% of its calories from fat. The WebMD Weight Loss Clinic recommends a heart-healthy diet to all its members.
To ensure heart health and help lower cholesterol, here are some recommendations about foods and nutrients to include in your diet: