The Dangers of High Cholesterol
By Kingman Regional Medical Center Staff
September is National Cholesterol Education Month – a perfect time to learn about the health risks of high cholesterol and what you can do about it.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that’s found in the fats (lipids) in your blood. You need cholesterol to make hormones, Vitamin D, and digestive fluids. Cholesterol also helps your organs function properly.
Your liver produces all the cholesterol your body needs. However, diet, lifestyle, and certain health conditions can cause too much cholesterol in your blood (high cholesterol).
High cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis— a dangerous accumulation of cholesterol and other deposits on the walls of your arteries. These deposits can reduce blood flow to your heart, brain, or other vital organs.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high cholesterol affects roughly 1 in 6 American adults. People with high cholesterol are at risk of heart attack and stroke.
“Good” vs “Bad” Cholesterol
Cholesterol is carried through your blood, attached to proteins. This combination of proteins and cholesterol is called a lipoprotein. There is both “good” and “bad” cholesterol based on what type of cholesterol the lipoprotein carries. They are:
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol transports cholesterol particles throughout your body. LDL cholesterol builds up in the walls of your arteries, making them hard and narrow.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL, or “good,” cholesterol picks up excess cholesterol and takes it back to your liver.
What causes high cholesterol?
Factors that may increase your risk of high cholesterol include:
- Poor diet. Eating saturated fat (found in animal products) and transfats (found in some commercially baked cookies and crackers) can raise your cholesterol level. Foods that are high in cholesterol, such as red meat and full-fat dairy products will also increase your total cholesterol.
- Obesity. Having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater puts you at risk of high cholesterol.
- Large waist circumference. Your risk increases if you are a man with a waist circumference of at least 40 inches (102 centimeters) or a woman with a waist circumference of at least 35 inches (89 centimeters).
- Lack of exercise. Exercise helps boost your body’s HDL, or “good,” cholesterol while increasing the size of the particles that make up your LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, which makes it less harmful.
- Smoking. Cigarette smoking damages the walls of your blood vessels, making them likely to accumulate fatty deposits. Smoking may also lower your level of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol.
- Diabetes. High blood sugar contributes to higher LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol. High blood sugar also damages the lining of your arteries.
- Genetic makeup. Your genetic makeup may keep cells from removing LDL cholesterol from your blood efficiently or cause your liver to produce too much cholesterol.
Reducing your risks
The same heart-healthy lifestyle changes that can lower your cholesterol can also prevent you from having high cholesterol in the first place. To help prevent high cholesterol, you can:
- Eat a low-salt diet that includes many fruits, vegetables and whole grains
- Limit the amount of animal fats and use good fats in moderation
- Lose extra pounds and maintain a healthy weight
- Quit smoking
- Exercise on most days of the week for at least 30 minutes
- Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all.
Talk to your doctor
High cholesterol alone does not present any symptoms. A blood test is the only way to know if you have high cholesterol.
The American Heart Association recommends a cholesterol test every 4-6 years for adults aged 20 and over. Patients with heart disease or other risk factors may need more frequent testing.
It is important to talk to your doctor if you have not been tested recently or if you have any concerns about your cholesterol.
Reduce Saturated Fat in Your Diet
Saturated fat raises your blood cholesterol more than anything else in your diet. Saturated fat is mostly found in foods from animals, such as fatty cuts of meat, poultry with the skin, whole-milk dairy products, and lard. Saturated fat is also in some vegetable oils, such as coconut and palm oils.
Reducing the amount of saturated fat in your diet is a very effective way to lower your LDL. Here are some tips:
- Avoid fried foods. Instead, choose food that is grilled, baked, broiled, roasted, steamed, poached, or stir fried. When sautéing food, use either cooking spray, a small amount of vegetable oil, or reduced-sodium broth.
- Instead of butter or hard margarines, use soft margarines (tub or liquid) that list liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient on the food label.
- Instead of sour cream, blend 1 cup low-fat, unsalted cottage cheese with 1 tablespoon fat-free milk and 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Or, substitute fat-free or low-fat sour cream or yogurt.
- Remove skin from chicken and other poultry before cooking.
- Try replacing beef with turkey in many recipes.
- Remove fat from homemade soups and stews by preparing them ahead and chilling them. Before reheating the dish, lift off the hardened fat that formed at the surface. If you don’t have time to chill the dish, float a few ice cubes on the surface of the warm liquid to harden the fat. Then remove and discard the fat.
- In salads and sandwiches, use fat-free or low-fat dressing, yogurt, or mayonnaise instead of regular versions.
- To make a salad dressing, use equal parts water and vinegar, and half as much oil.
- When making muffins or quick breads, use three ripe, very well-mashed bananas, instead of 1/2 cup butter or oil. Or substitute a cup of applesauce for a cup of butter, margarine, oil, or shortening.
You can learn more on how to improve your health with a better diet through KRMC’s Nutrition and Diabetes Education department. Nutrition education involves one-on-one consultations with a registered dietitian. For more information, see our Nutrition Education page.