What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance in the body that serves several vital roles. It is a building block for various hormones and bile acids; and it plays a major role in stabilizing cell membranes. While proper cholesterol levels are important to good health, the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that elevated blood cholesterol levels greatly increase the risk of death due to heart disease.


Cholesterol is transported in the blood by lipoproteins. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is responsible for transporting fats (primarily triglycerides and cholesterol) from the liver to body cells, and elevations of LDL is associated with an increased risk of developing atherosclerosis, the primary cause of heart attack and stroke. In contrast, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is responsible for returning fats to the liver, and elevations of HDL are associated with a low risk of heart attack.


Currently, experts recommend that your total blood cholesterol level should be less than 200 mg/dl from a fasting blood sample. The HDL level should be greater than 40 mg/dl. The LDL level limit is based on your current health history and risk factors:

  • Less than 100 mg/dl for people who have coronary heart disease, diabetes, or an elevated 10-year risk estimate, as determined by a physician.
  • Less than 130 mg/dl for people who do not have coronary heart disease or equivalent risk for it, but have two or more risk factors. Risk factors include age, low activity, smoking, and being over weight.
  • Less than 160 mg/dl for people who have no or one risk factor for coronary heart disease.

What causes high cholesterol?

Elevated cholesterol levels are usually reflective of dietary and lifestyle factors, although it can also be due to genetic factors.

 

What dietary factors are important in lowering high cholesterol?

The key recommendations are to eat less saturated fat and cholesterol by reducing or eliminating the amounts of animal products in the diet. Increase the consumption of fiber-rich plant foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and raw nuts and seeds). When attempting to lower cholesterol through diet it is important to eat a variety of cholesterol-lowering vegetables including celery, beets, eggplant, garlic and onion, peppers and root vegetables.

 

Diets rich in legumes (beans) are being used to lower cholesterol levels and soy protein has been shown in some studies to be able to lower LDL levels by as much as 35-40%. Nuts and seeds, particularly almonds, walnuts, and ground flaxseeds are also quite useful in lowering cholesterol through their fiber, monounsaturated oil, and essential fatty acid content.

 

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