What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is sort of a "cousin" of fat. Both fat and cholesterol belong to a larger family of chemical compounds called lipids. All the cholesterol the body needs is made by the liver. It is used to build cell membranes and brain and nerve tissues. Cholesterol also helps the body produce steroid hormones needed for body regulation, including processing food, and bile acids needed for digestion.
People don't need to consume dietary cholesterol because the body can make enough cholesterol for its needs. But the typical U.S. diet contains substantial amounts of cholesterol, found in foods such as egg yolks, liver, meat, some shellfish, and whole-milk dairy products. Only foods of animal origin contain cholesterol.
Cholesterol is transported in the bloodstream in large molecules of fat and protein called lipoproteins. Cholesterol carried in low-density lipoproteins is called LDL-cholesterol; most cholesterol is of this type. Cholesterol carried in high-density lipoproteins is called HDL-cholesterol.
A person's cholesterol "number" refers to the total amount of cholesterol in the blood. Cholesterol is measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) of blood. (A deciliter is a tenth of a liter.) Doctors recommend that total blood cholesterol be kept below 200 mg/dl. The average level in adults in this country is 205 to 215 mg/dl. Studies in the United States and other countries have consistently shown that total cholesterol levels above 200 to 220 mg/dl are linked with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
LDL-cholesterol and HDL-cholesterol act differently in the body. A high level of LDL-cholesterol in the blood increases the risk of fatty deposits forming in the arteries, which in turn increases the risk of a heart attack. Thus, LDL-cholesterol has been dubbed "bad" cholesterol.
On the other hand, an elevated level of HDL-cholesterol seems to have a protective effect against heart disease. For this reason, HDL-cholesterol is often called "good" cholesterol. In 1992, a panel of medical experts convened by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommended that individuals should have their level of HDL-cholesterol checked along with their total cholesterol.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a component of NIH, a healthy person who is not at high risk for heart disease and whose total cholesterol level is in the normal range (around 200 mg/dl) should have an HDL-cholesterol level of more than 35 mg/dl. NHLBI also says that an LDL-cholesterol level of less than 130 mg/dl is "desirable" to minimize the risk of heart disease.
Some very recent studies have suggested that LDL-cholesterol is more likely to cause fatty deposits in the arteries if it has been through a chemical change known as oxidation. However, these findings are not accepted by all scientists.
The NIH panel also advised that individuals with high total cholesterol or other risk factors for coronary heart disease should have their triglyceride levels checked along with their HDL-cholesterol levels.
How To Lower Your Cholesterol
If your doctor has told you to lose a few pounds because your cholesterol is high, you may be frustrated with the new restrictions on your diet. Here's a run-down of a cholesterol-lowering diet, letting you know not only what's bad, but also what you may eat.
First, beginning a regular exercise program is one of the smartest things you can do. Do at least thirty minutes of some aerobic activity every day, if you can.
As for food, you might feel like you'll never have the list of do's and don'ts memorized. That's okay. Just remember the basics. Avoid a lot of saturated fat and sugar, and gradually increase your fiber intake (I say "gradually" because an abrupt increase in fiber could make you sick). Here's a run-down of how someone with high cholesterol should handle the different types of food:
Foods To Help Lower Your Cholesterol
- Eggs: Eat all the egg whites or egg substitutes you want, but have no more than two yolks per week.
- Fruits: Eat 3 half-cup servings of fresh fruit every day. Citrus fruits are especially good. Avoid coconuts, which are full of saturated fat.
- Meats: Lean meats only. Use shellfish (which is high in cholesterol) sparingly, and avoid fatty red meat, pork, duck and goose. Do not eat any skin, organ meats or anything packed in oil (tuna packed in water is fine). No processed lunch meats, frankfurters or fast food burgers. All meats should be baked or broiled.
- Vegetables: Most veggies are fine. Since fiber helps to reduce cholesterol, concentrate on broccoli, celery, cauliflower and potato skins. Eat a colorful (dark green or dark yellow) vegetable every day.
- Dairy Products: Use skim or one percent milk only and low-fat or fat free cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.
- Breads: For the fiber, stick with whole-grain breads like whole wheat or oat. If you bake it yourself, use margarine instead of butter, and use an egg substitute. Avoid pastries and rolls that are high in sugar.
- Beans: Avoid baked beans, especially if pork and/or sugar are added. Most other beans are okay, as well as dried peas.
- Cereals: Avoid sugary cereals and opt for whole grain. As we all know, oatmeal is a wonderful cholesterol-lowering tool.
- Fats and oils: No butter; use soft margarine (not sticks) if necessary. Vegetable oils should be high in polyunsaturated fats (some good ones are sunflower, safflower, cottonseed, soybean and corn oil). No animal fats, meat drippings, gravies, palm oils or coconut oils.
- Sweets: Nothing fried, chocolate or sugary. Yikes! Sherbet, Jell-O, pudding made with skim milk and egg white souffles are okay, but no more than two servings a day.
- Drinks: Fresh fruit juices (not sugary ones), black coffee or tea and sugarless soft drinks are fine. No whole milk or fatty coffee creamer.
- Herbs & Sauces: Herbs, spices, vinegar, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and mustard can be used freely (but don't overdo the sodium!)