To help keep our patients and visitors healthy for life, we’ve created a service where we answer the most popular questions people have about health and nutrition.
What is “bad cholesterol and how do I lower it?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance in your cells that performs useful functions in your system. It doesn’t just dissolve in your bloodstream, it has to be carried to and from your cells by “lipoproteins.” Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL) are what we call “bad” cholesterol, as they are comprised primarily of fat with only a small amount of protein. When large amounts of LDL circulate in your bloodstream, it builds up on the artery walls, forming a type of hard, thick plaque that decreases the flexibility of your arteries and narrows them, known as atherosclerosis, putting you at greater risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. Desirable levels for those with the goal of becoming healthy for life are less than 100 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter).
“Good” cholesterol is what we call High Density Lipoproteins (HDL), which has a much higher content level of protein than it does fat. HDLs help clear LDLs out of your bloodstream and deliver them to your liver so they can be broken down and not clog your arteries. The higher the level of HDLs in your system, the greater chance you have to be healthy for life. Most nutrition counseling guidelines refer to desirable levels as those higher than 40 mg/dL for men and higher than 50 mg/dL for women.
Foods high in saturated fats and trans fats can raise your LDL levels. Some of the worst culprits are foods with saturated fats such as fatty meats like rib-eye steaks and cheeseburgers, dairy products with whole milk such as cream, ice cream, whole-milk cheeses and butter. Other foods with high levels of saturated fats include lard, egg yolks, macaroni and cheese, as well as palm and coconut oils. Foods that contain trans fats are processed and fried foods such as French fries, chips, onion rings, and foods made with white flour such as bread, crackers, muffins, cookies, cake and doughnuts.
It’s ideal to visit a nutrition counseling center to learn about which foods can help you reduce your cholesterol levels. In the meantime, start by avoiding or reducing intake of the abovementioned foods and increase your consumption of “good” cholesterol. Also—get moving! A sedentary lifestyle can contribute to higher levels of “bad” cholesterol, so it’s essential to increase daily activity and to follow an exercise program. Even low intensity exercise such as a walking program can decrease bad cholesterol.
To increase your levels of HDL, start by upping your intake of “healthy fats” such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as well as and soluble fiber. Good sources of healthy fats include those with a high content of omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish like salmon, halibut and tuna, as well as olive oil, canola oil and avocados. Nuts also are a great source of healthy fat, such as walnuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and pistachio nuts. Foods that contain soluble fiber include fruit, steel cut oatmeal, barley, kidney beans and peas.