Cholesterol is an organic, fat-like compound found in most body tissues. Your body produces it naturally to assist in multiple functions, including the production of bile acids, hormones and Vitamin D, digestive processes, and the formation of cell membranes and other steroid compounds. Your liver is responsible for the production of enough cholesterol to support these tasks, but you also build cholesterol through your intake of specific types of food like dairy, meat, and poultry.
While the correct amount of the right kind of cholesterol can be beneficial to your body and serve various purposes, experts say that it is possible to have too much cholesterol either in your diet or your body’s natural production as a result of your diet, leading to a higher risk of health problems like heart attack and stroke.
Life choices and other circumstances that can lead to high levels of cholesterol include:
- Lack of frequent or regular exercise
- A waist circumference that is too large — over 35 inches for women or over 40 inches for men
- A diet heavy in trans fats, processed foods, saturated fats, full-fat dairy or red meats
- High stress levels, which lead to unhealthy habits
Because cholesterol is a lipid and is insoluble in water, it needs to be carried through the blood and to specific tissues by proteins called lipoproteins — substances composed of both proteins and fats. There are two types of lipoproteins — low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL) — also known as good and bad cholesterols, and your levels of both determine your overall cholesterol and health.
Known as the “good cholesterol,” high-density lipoproteins absorb cholesterol and work to transport excess cholesterol circulating in your bloodstream back to your liver, where your body can break it down and flush it out. Having a high level of HDL means your body naturally works to have less cholesterol, which lowers your risk of developing large amounts of plaque in your arteries and decreases your chance of developing a heart attack, heart disease or a stroke.
The higher your number of HDL, the better. The National Institute of Health (NIH) states that HDL cholesterol levels should be at least 50 milligrams per deciliter of blood for women and at least 40 mg/dL for males. In general, women tend to have higher HDL than men.
Because your diet can affect your cholesterol level, experts agree that you can — to some degree — control whether you have high levels of the right kind of cholesterol by incorporating more of these kinds of food into your daily diet:
- Beans and Legumes: High in fiber and folate, these are healthy for your heart and help lower your LDL levels.
- Whole Grains: Also an excellent source of fiber, whole grains work to lower LDL.
- High-Fiber Fruits: The natural fibers in fruits will help lower LDL levels and raise HDL.
- Fatty Fish: The omega-3 fatty acids found in these fish will lower LDL.
- Flax Seeds and Nuts: Containing both omega-3s and other healthy fats, these snacks are healthy for your heart.
- Healthy Fats: Foods high in natural, healthy fats like avocados and olive oil block inflammatory LDL and lower your body’s cholesterol levels.
Known as the bad kind of cholesterol, low-density lipoproteins carry cholesterol to where your body needs it. If you have too much LDL, however, they carry cholesterol to your arteries, where it builds up on the artery walls and can lead to the heavy accumulation of plaque, according to the CDC. Over time, plaque buildup can narrow your arteries, decrease blood flow to your brain or heart and lead to a stroke or heart attack. In addition, it can reduce oxygen and blood flow to essential organs, which can cause peripheral arterial disease or kidney disease.
Your LDL levels should be as low as possible — Harvard Medical School recommends no more than 130 mg/dL with no pre-existing heart or blood conditions and no more than 100 mg/dL if you have diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol or blood vessel disease.
To lower your LDL levels and prevent health risks, it is recommended that you avoid the following foods:
- Processed Foods: High in saturated and trans fats and preservatives, these foods contribute to higher LDL levels.
- Full-Fat Dairy: While some natural fat is good, products like full-fat milk, cheese, ice cream and yogurt do not raise the right kind of fat.
- Red Meat: Fatty red meats contain high levels of saturated fats, which raise cholesterol levels.
- Fried Foods: While olive oil and other natural oils are healthy, fried foods often use greasy oils high in trans fats, which are disastrous for your cholesterol.
The Right Dietary Choices
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