The Ultimate Guide to Cholesterol: Getting to Know the Good, the Bad and the Ugly About Your Cholesterol: How to Lower Your Cholesterol Naturally
If you’re older than 20 and are conscientious about your health you’ve probably had your cholesterol tested (if you haven’t, you should). But what do all of those test results mean in real world terms? When is there cause for worry? And how can understanding your results help you improve your health?
More and more people are realizing the importance of good health earlier in life, and are taking the reins to prevent heart disease from creeping into their lives. According the CDC, every year in the United States alone one in every four deaths (about 610,000 people) is the result of heart disease. Which, depressingly, is not a surprise when considering the typical American diet.
It’s hard to escape the sad truth about heart disease, as so many of us have lost loved ones to it. As a result, more of us are actively seeking answers and insight into our own health in order to prevent such a debilitating and depressing illness from forcing us into an early grave.
The most tragic fact is that the CDC has found that about 80 percent of deaths from coronary artery disease — a name for heart disease caused by narrowing of the arteries which leads to reduced blood flow to the heart — can be attributed to preventable factors like obesity, poor physical activity, heavy drinking, eating unhealthy foods and not keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol under control. That’s almost 488,000 horrible deaths that COULD HAVE BEEN PREVENTED!
I hope the importance of a strong understanding of your current cholesterol levels (and blood pressure) are a matter of life and death.
The good news is that there is a new movement of people working toward preventing heart problems by living healthier lifestyles, moving away from the traditional American diet, and monitoring, and lowering their cholesterol levels earlier in life. Between 2006 and 2010 the percentage of Americans with coronary artery disease—the cause of nearly all heart attacks—fell by 10%. With a little knowledge and work your high cholesterol is something you can change and the debilitating and painful effects of heart disease can be avoided.
WHAT IS CHOLESTEROL AND IS IT REALLY ALL BAD?
Cholesterol has a bad reputation, thanks to its well-known role in promoting heart disease. Excess cholesterol in the bloodstream is a key contributor to artery-clogging plaque, which can accumulate and set the stage for heart disease or a heart attack. But did you know that not all cholesterol is bad cholesterol? We’ve got cholesterol allies that are scrubbing their way through our circulatory system pulling the plaque off the walls of our arteries and depositing it back into our livers to be expelled. Our cholesterol and cardiac systems are complex and varied. Let’s take a closer look.
WHERE DOES CHOLESTEROL COME FROM?
Did you know that 80% of the cholesterol in your body is manufactured in your liver? The liver will manufacture cholesterol and increase your cholesterol levels when your diet is high in fat and trans fats (we’ll discuss the different types of fat below).
The other 20% comes from the foods you eat. Things like meat, dairy, and poultry products contain cholesterol. That’s because cholesterol is the fat found in animal products. Not just the skin, but the marbling of fat within the meat. Every bite of animal protein contributes to your overall cholesterol level. Therefore people who eat animal products as a part of their regular diet may have higher cholesterol levels than those who don’t.
Since cholesterol is a fat, it can’t travel alone in the bloodstream. It would end up as useless globs (imagine bacon fat floating in a pot of water). To get around this problem, the body packages cholesterol into minuscule protein-covered particles that mix easily with blood. These tiny particles, called lipoproteins (lipid plus protein), move cholesterol and other fats throughout the body.
Cholesterol and other lipids (we’ll explore lipids more closely shortly) circulate in the bloodstream in several different forms. Lipoproteins come in a range of shapes and sizes, and each type has its own tasks. They also morph from one form into another as they’re used by your body.
WHAT DOES CHOLESTEROL DO IN YOUR BODY?
Cholesterol is vital to your health and well-being. Although we measure cholesterol production in the blood, it’s found in every cell in the body.
Think of cholesterol as a waxy, whitish-yellow fat in your blood, and a crucial building block in cell membranes. It’s also used to make vitamin D, hormones (including testosterone and estrogen), and fat-dissolving bile acids.
WHAT CAUSES HIGH CHOLESTEROL?
Most people have high levels of fat in their blood because they eat too much high-fat food. Some people have high fat levels because they have an inherited disorder. High lipid levels may also be caused by medical conditions such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, alcoholism, kidney disease, liver disease and stress.
In some people, certain medicines such as birth control pills, steroids, and blood pressure medications can cause high lipid levels as well.
ARE THEIR ANY OUTWARD SYMPTOMS OF HIGH CHOLESTEROL LEVELS?
Some people with high lipid levels may have yellowish, fatty bumps on their skin.
Most often there are no outward signs of high cholesterol until you have a heart attack or stroke. Without a blood test, you may never know you have high levels of fat in your blood. In this instance, ignorance is not bliss. It’s a ticking time bomb that you can diffuse with knowledge and action.
WHAT DO CHOLESTEROL TESTS (LIPID PANELS) CHECK FOR?
Let’s take a closer look at the cast of characters that you’ll find listed on a typical cholesterol (lipid) panel like the one your doctor orders.
A cholesterol test is often referred to as a lipid panel. And your lipids refer to more than just your cholesterol. So what are lipids?
Lipids are molecules that contain hydrocarbons and make up the building blocks of the structure and function of living cells. Examples of lipids include fats, oils, waxes, certain vitamins, hormones and most of the non-protein membrane of cells.
Although the term “lipid” is sometimes used as a synonym for fats, fats are a subgroup of lipids called triglycerides.
Lipids are fat-like substances found in your blood and body tissues. Your body needs small amounts of lipids to work normally. Lipids have a wide variety of different uses in the body, including cell wall structure and fat storage.
Lipids are derived from two main sources: exogenously from the food you eat; and endogenously made in your liver.
So what do lipids have to do with our cholesterol? Lipids join with protein in your blood to form three kinds of lipoproteins. We refer to these lipoproteins as cholesterol. Lipoproteins make energy for your body, so they’re important to the cells in your body.
TOTAL CHOLESTEROL levels are made up of these different types of cholesterol (although most results will indicate HDL, LDL, Triglyceride, and “non-LDL” cholesterols):
Here’s a breakdown of total cholesterol levels and your respective health risks:
Less than 200 mg/dL – you are at low risk for heart disease
200 to 240 mg/dL – borderline high
240 mg/dL and above – high
High-Density Lipoprotein (or HDL) – This is “good” cholesterol because HDL particles remove cholesterol from circulation and plaque from artery walls and return it to the liver for excretion.
High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, makes up 20-30 percent of your total cholesterol level.
Standard Range >=40 mg/dL for men, and >=50 mg/dL for women
Intermediate-Density Lipoprotein (IDL) – Cholesterol particles formed by the liver form as very-low density lipoproteins (VLDLs). As these give up their fatty acids to be used by the body they are changed into intermediate-density lipoproteins (IDLs). As they are circulated again and again, and more and more fatty acids are removed they change again into low-density lipoproteins (LDLs). These are the bad cholesterol that stick to your artery walls. Having a measurement of IDLs can be a good indicator of impending LDL and overall cholesterol processes and health.
Cholesterol, non-HDL Standard Range <=189 mg/dL
Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL) – These ones are the “bad” cholesterol because they coat the insides of your arteries with cholesterol, waxy fat particles, increasing your risk of heart attack or stroke.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) particles are even richer in pure cholesterol than IDLs, since most of the triglycerides they carried are gone. As LDLs coat your arteries with this pure cholesterol it causes a buildup of a substance called plaque. This leads to a condition known as atherosclerosis, which is a form of heart disease.
Both the body and heart are affected when this happens. The condition slows down the blood flow to the heart muscle and can block blood from even getting to the heart. This increases a person’s risk of a heart attack.
Having an increased amount of LDL cholesterol, caused by trans and saturated fats (we’ll discuss these shortly), increases the risk for heart disease and even diabetes.
Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, makes up 60-70 percent of the total cholesterol in your body.
Here’s a breakdown of LDL cholesterol levels and associated health risks:
Less than 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) – this is your goal if you’re at very high risk for a heart attack
Less than 100 mg/dL – the goal for people with heart disease or diabetes
100 to 129 mg/dL – near or above the ideal level
130 to 159 mg/dL – borderline high
160 to 189 mg/dL – high
190 mg/dL and above – very high
Very Low-Density Lipoproteins (VLDL) – Finally, very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) is a precursor to LDL and makes up about 10-15 percent of a person’s total cholesterol.
Very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) particles also carry triglycerides to tissues, but they are made by the liver. As the body’s cells extract fatty acids from VLDLs, the particles turn into intermediate density lipoproteins, and, with further extraction, into LDL particles.
VLDL and IDL together are what comprise the non-HDL cholesterol levels listed on your lipid panel results.
Cholesterol, non-HDL Standard Range <=189 mg/dL
Chylomicrons – are a small fat globule composed of protein and lipid (fat). Chylomicrons are found in the blood and lymphatic fluid where they serve to transport fat from its port of entry in the intestine (from the food you eat) to the liver and to adipose (fat) tissue for storage. After a fatty meal, the blood is so full of chylomicrons that it looks milky.
Chylomicrons aren’t typically tested for in lipid panels, but knowing how and why they exist gives you a clearer understanding of the cholesterol system in your body.
WHAT IS A GOOD non-HDL CHOLESTEROL LEVEL?
Non-LDL cholesterol levels are a better predictor of risks for coronary heart disease than your LDL level.
According to federal cholesterol program guidelines, your non-HDL cholesterol levels goal should be 30 mg/dL higher than your LDL cholesterol level goal. For example, if you are aiming for an LDL cholesterol of 100 mg/dL, then your goal for non-HDL should be 130 mg/dL.
In general, the higher your total and LDL cholesterol levels, the higher your risk for coronary heart disease. But some heart attacks happen in people who don’t have a high LDL level.
Some researchers believe that measuring your non-HDL cholesterol levels gives a better assessment of the risk for heart disease than measuring only LDL. This is especially true if you have high triglycerides. Your non-HDL cholesterol level is found by subtracting your HDL cholesterol from your total cholesterol.
The test for non-HDL cholesterol isn’t usually part of screening for your total cholesterol. But if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or other risks for heart disease, your chances of having a heart attack are higher than normal. In these cases, your provider may calculate your non-HDL cholesterol, too.
Your provider may also order this test if a blood test shows you have high levels of triglycerides, another type of fat in the blood. A high non-HDL cholesterol level alone isn’t a warning sign that something is wrong with your arteries or heart, but if your triglycerides measure more than 200 mg/dL, your provider may prescribe medicine to help lower both your LDL and your non-HDL cholesterol.
Test results may vary depending on your age, gender, health history, the method used for the test, and other things. Your test results may not mean you have a problem. Ask your healthcare provider what your test results mean for you.
Although no clear standards exist for non-HDL levels, most medical experts believe that lowering LDL and non-HDL cholesterol at the same time will cut your heart disease risk.
If you have diabetes, smoke, have a family history of heart disease, or have other risk factors, your cholesterol levels may need to be much lower. Talk with your healthcare provider about where your cholesterol levels should be.
Triglycerides are the main constituents of natural fats, body fat in humans and other animals, as well as vegetable fat, and oils.
Triglycerides are a type of fat (lipid) found in your blood. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides. The triglycerides are stored in your fat cells. Later, hormones release triglycerides for energy between meals. If you regularly eat more calories than you burn, particularly “easy” calories like carbohydrates and fats, you may have high triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia).
What’s considered a normal level of triglycerides when looking at your lipid panel results?
Your doctor will usually check for high triglycerides as part of a cholesterol test. You should know the following levels when deciphering your results.
- Normal — Less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), (or less than 1.7 mmol/L)
- Borderline high — 150 to 199 mg/dL (1.8 to 2.2 mmol/L)
- High — 200 to 499 mg/dL (2.3 to 5.6 mmol/L)
- Very high — 500 mg/dL or above (5.7 mmol/L or above)
What’s the difference between triglycerides and cholesterol?
Triglycerides and cholesterol are separate types of lipids that circulate in your blood. Triglycerides store unused calories and provide your body with energy, and cholesterol is used to build cells and certain hormones. Because triglycerides and cholesterol can’t dissolve in blood, they circulate throughout your body with the help of proteins that transport the lipids (lipoproteins).
Why do high triglycerides matter?
High concentrations of triglycerides in the blood indicates an elevated risk of stroke, heart attack and heart disease or even acute pancreatitis.
Although it’s unclear how, high triglycerides may contribute to hardening of the arteries or thickening of the artery walls (atherosclerosis) — which increases the risk of stroke, heart attack and heart disease. Extremely high triglycerides — for example, levels above 1000 mg/dL (11.29 mmol/L) — can also cause acute pancreatitis.
High triglycerides are often a sign of other conditions that increase the risk of heart disease and stroke as well, including obesity and metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions that includes too much fat around the waist, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, high blood sugar and abnormal cholesterol levels.
Sometimes high triglycerides are a sign of poorly controlled type 2 diabetes, low levels of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism), liver or kidney disease, or rare genetic conditions that affect how your body converts fat to energy.
High triglycerides could also be a side effect of taking medications such as beta blockers, birth control pills, diuretics or steroids.
What’s the best way to lower triglycerides?
Healthy lifestyle choices are key, and you’ll see shortly that these recommendation mirror closely the ones made for improving overall cholesterol levels:
- Lose weight.If you’re overweight, losing 5 to 10 pounds can help lower your triglycerides. Motivate yourself by focusing on the benefits of losing weight, such as more energy and improved health.
- Cut back on calories.Remember that extra calories are converted to triglycerides and stored as fat. Reducing your calories will reduce triglycerides.
- Avoid sugary and refined foods.Simple carbohydrates, such as sugar and refined foods made with white flour, can increase triglycerides.
- Choose healthier fats.Trade saturated fat found in meats for healthier monounsaturated fat found in plants, such as olive, peanut and safflower oils. Substitute fish high in omega-3 fatty acids — such as mackerel and salmon — for red meat.
- Limit how much alcohol you drink.Alcohol is high in calories and sugar and has a particularly potent effect on triglycerides. Even small amounts of alcohol can raise triglyceride levels.
- Exercise regularly.Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most or all days of the week. Regular exercise can lower triglycerides and boost “good” cholesterol. Take a brisk daily walk, swim laps or join an exercise group. If you don’t have time to exercise for 30 minutes, try squeezing it in 10 minutes at a time. Take a short walk, climb the stairs at work, or try some sit-ups or pushups as you watch television.
What about medication?
If healthy lifestyle changes aren’t enough to control high triglycerides, your doctor might recommend some of the following:
- Your doctor might prescribe these cholesterol-lowering drugs if you also have low high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol; high low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol; or if you have a history of blocked arteries or diabetes. Examples include atorvastatin (Lipitor) and simvastatin (Zocor). Muscle pain is a potential side effect.
- Fish oils.Also known as omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil supplements can help lower your triglycerides. High doses are needed, however, so this option is often reserved for people who have triglyceride levels over 500 mg/dL (5.7 mmol/L).
- Fibrate medications, such as fenofibrate (TriCor, Fenoglide, others) and gemfibrozil (Lopid), also can lower your triglyceride levels. Fibrates seem to work best in people who have triglyceride levels over 500 mg/dL (5.7 mmol/L). Fibrates may increase the risk of side effects when taken together with statins.
- Niacin, sometimes called nicotinic acid, can lower your triglycerides and your “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol). It’s typically reserved for people who have triglyceride levels over 500 mg/dL (5.7 mmol/L). Don’t take over-the-counter niacin without talking to your doctor first. Niacin can interact with other medications and can cause significant side effects.
If your doctor prescribes medication to lower your triglycerides, take the medication as prescribed. And remember the significance of the healthy lifestyle changes you’ve made. Medications can help — but lifestyle matters, too.
WHAT IS YOUR CHOLESTEROL RATIO AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
You and your doctor should work together to develop a personal strategy to lower your LDL by a certain percentage. It’s based on your how likely it is you’ll have heart disease or a stroke. To figure it out, doctors use a calculator to estimate your chance of those problems in the next 10 years.
The calculator considers several things, including:
- Your cholesterol level
- Your age
- Your blood pressure
- Whether you smoke
- If you take blood pressure medicine
Working out a person’s cholesterol ratio is important because it can help a doctor determine a person’s risk of heart disease.
Doctors calculate an individual’s cholesterol ratio by dividing their total cholesterol by their high-density lipoprotein level.
The optimal ratio is between 1 and 3.5. A higher ratio increases the risk of heart disease.
When a person has a test that shows a high total cholesterol level, it may be because LDL cholesterol levels have climbed. A doctor can determine the different levels of cholesterol by focusing on HDL, LDL, and VLDL separately, in a blood test.
A good cholesterol ratio shows that the body is working properly and is healthy. It signals that someone is in good health and is probably taking care of themselves.
The Framingham Heart Study states that the following cholesterol ratios roughly signal different degrees of heart disease risk:
5.0 = average risk
3.4 = half the average risk
9.6 = twice the average risk
4.4 = average risk
3.3 = half the average risk
7.0 = twice the average risk
While men and women have the same blood test, their average HDL, LDL, and VLDL levels are typically different. For example, in the case of menopausal women, it is usual for them to have an increased LDL.
This does not mean that women are unaffected by bad cholesterol ratios. It simply means women have shown to be less susceptible to bad cholesterol ratios.
Women should have a recommended HDL level of 50, while a man’s recommended HDL level is 40.
TIPS FOR MANAGING CHOLESTEROL LEVELS
Cholesterol ratios, good or bad, can be maintained or altered. If a person has a high cholesterol ratio or a high level of LDL, there are ways to lower this level of bad cholesterol.
All of these lifestyle changes have a myriad of health benefits that are not limited to just improving cholesterol levels. Please consider them seriously, and implement them into your life using baby steps. Remember that the change you will see in your test results always take longer than they think they should, so be dissuaded from continuing with these healthy changes if you get back a test result that’s not as perfect as you hoped for. You can only get better with time. In six months, you’ll wish you had started today. Let’s get started…
WAYS TO LOWER BAD (LDL) CHOLESTEROL
Some of those ways include:
DIET– Foods that are high in saturated fat, trans fat, and carbohydrates raise bad cholesterol levels, so eating less of these types of foods will help manage and reduce it. It’s especially important, when working to lower your LDL cholesterol (and all of us should be) to buy lean cuts of meat. Make sure you cut away all visible fat before cooking meat and remove the skin from chicken before cooking it.
Avoid fried foods or high-fat sauces.
Broil or grill meat instead of frying it. Even in olive oil. Broiling and grilling meat allows the melted fats to drip away from the meat. Frying just bathes the meat in its own fat.
Avoid egg yolks. Yes, they are full of nutrient. Unfortunately they’re all full of cholesterol.
If you eat or drink dairy products make sure to use low-fat dairy products, such as skim or 1% milk, and low-fat dairy products. In truth it’s healthier to avoid dairy all together. The APA makes no recommendations for the consumption of dairy for anyone over 5, despite those popular commercials trying to convince us that “milk does a body good”.
The number one dietary recommendation that can be made is to add more fiber to your diet the right way. Drinking a glass of psyllium (Metamucil) every day is a POOR EXCUSE for meeting your daily dietary needs and your poor health will reflect it. Fruits and vegetables are THE BEST source of fiber and complex carbohydrates (the kind of carbs you SHOULD be eating). Eat three to five servings of vegetables a day and two to four servings of fruit.
WEIGHT – Many risks are associated with being overweight or obese, including increased cholesterol levels. Keeping a healthy weight helps all factors of health as well as reducing the risk of heart disease.
Losing weight is easier said than done. But it is the best thing you can possibly do for your health, for your family and for you mind.
EXERCISE – Being active for at least 30 minutes per day raises the heart rate, helps with keeping a healthy weight, and reduces LDL cholesterol levels while increasing HDL cholesterol levels.
In addition to these lifestyle methods, a doctor can prescribe medications to help lower a person’s cholesterol levels. The two most popular medications are statins and niacin. Both are used to reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
If you can’t sustain 30 minutes of exercise in one go, aim to achieve some level of moderate exercise every day to lower your LDL.
WAYS TO INCREASE YOUR HDL (GOOD) CHOLESTEROL LEVELS
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is referred to as the “good” cholesterol because having high HDL levels helps carry cholesterol from your arteries to your liver, where it can be used or excreted.
Having high levels of HDL also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
Here are some actionable way to increase your HDL levels starting today.
- Consume Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil will always be more healthful than processed olive oils because extra virgin olive oil has more polyphenols than more processed olive oils, although the amount can still vary among different types and brands. Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant. The process of refining olive oil extracts these polyphenols, so find the most virgin, unrefined olive oil that you can.
Even places like Walmart are starting to carry high-end extra virgin olive oils grown and packaged right here in the US. Olive oil is one of the healthiest fats money can buy. So even if it cost more than canola oil or “vegetable oil” it is worth the money.
A large analysis of 42 studies with more than 800,000 participants found that olive oil was the only source of monounsaturated fat that seemed to reduce heart disease risk.
One study gave 200 healthy young men about 2 tablespoons (25 ml) of different olive oils per day for three weeks.
The researchers found that participants’ HDL levels increased significantly more after they consumed the olive oil with the highest polyphenol content.
In another study, when 62 older adults consumed about 4 tablespoons (50 ml) of high-polyphenol extra virgin olive oil every day for six weeks, their HDL cholesterol increased by 6.5 mg/dl, on average.
In addition to raising HDL levels, olive oil has been found to boost HDL’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant function in studies of older people and individuals with high cholesterol levels.
If you’re looking for someplace to start to increase your good cholesterol – start eating extra-virgin olive oil today!
- Follow a Low-Carb Diet
A low-carb diet provide a number of health benefits, including weight loss and reduced blood sugar levels. It has also been shown to increase HDL cholesterol in people who tend to have lower levels. This includes those who are obese, insulin resistant or diabetic.
In one study, people with type 2 diabetes were split into two groups.
One followed a diet consuming less than 50 grams of carbs per day. The other followed a high-carb diet.
Although both groups lost weight, the low-carb group’s HDL cholesterol increased almost twice as much as the high-carb group’s did.
In another study, obese people who followed a low-carb diet experienced an increase in HDL cholesterol of 5 mg/dl overall.
Meanwhile, in the same study, the participants who ate a low-fat, high-carb diet showed a decrease in HDL cholesterol.
This response may partially be due to the higher levels of fat people typically consume on low-carb diets, which is a terrible idea if you’re striving to lower your cholesterol.
One study in overweight women found that diets high in meat and cheese increased HDL levels by 5-8%, compared to a higher-carb diet.
What’s more, in addition to raising HDL cholesterol, very-low-carb diets have been shown to decrease triglycerides and improve several other risk factors for heart disease.
- Exercise Regularly
While exercise can’t make you healthy if your diet is lacking, it can enhance what health you already have. That’s because being physically active is important for heart health and sedentary lifestyles are so dangerous.
Studies have shown that many different types of exercise are effective at raising HDL cholesterol, including strength training, high-intensity exercises and aerobic exercise. Although the biggest increases in HDL are typically seen with high-intensity exercises.
One small study followed women who were living with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is linked to a higher risk of insulin resistance. The study required them to perform high-intensity exercises three times a week.
The exercise led to an increase in HDL cholesterol of 8 mg/dL after 10 weeks. The women also showed improvements in other health markers, including decreased insulin resistance and improved arterial function.
In a 12-week study, overweight men who performed high-intensity exercises experienced a 10% increase in HDL cholesterol.
In contrast, the low-intensity exercise group showed only a 2% increase and the endurance training group experienced no change. However, even lower-intensity exercise seems to increase HDL’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacities, whether or not HDL levels change.
Overall, high-intensity exercise such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and high-intensity circuit training (HICT) may boost HDL cholesterol levels the most.
Aerobic exercise should be done on a regular basis: work up to exercising for 30 minutes four or five times a week.
You can also exercise for only 10 to 15 mins at a time, but if you do so you need to exercise more often than four or five times a week.
- Add Coconut Oil to Your Diet
Studies have shown that coconut oil may reduce appetite, increase metabolic rate and help protect brain health, among other benefits.
Some people may be concerned about coconut oil’s effects on heart health due to its high saturated fat content.
However, it appears that coconut oil is actually quite heart healthy.
Coconut oil tends to raise HDL cholesterol more than many other types of fat.
In addition, it may improve the ratio of low-density-lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol, to HDL cholesterol. Improving this ratio reduces heart disease risk.
One study examined the health effects of coconut oil on 40 women with excess belly fat. The researchers found that participants who took coconut oil daily experienced increased HDL cholesterol and a lower LDL-to-HDL ratio.
In contrast, the group who took soybean oil daily had a decrease in HDL cholesterol and an increase in the LDL-to-HDL ratio.
Most studies have found these health benefits occur at a dosage of about 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of coconut oil per day. It’s best to incorporate this into cooking rather than eating spoonfuls of coconut oil on their own.
Coconut has become quite popular and is readily available at most grocery stores. Look for the least refined, most virgin version of the oil you can find.
- Stop Smoking
With all of the research over the years underlying how unhealthy and dangerous smoking is, leading to so many diseases including heart disease, lung cancer, bowel cancer, throat cancer and more, that it’s remarkable this even needs to be said. Smoking is addictive and health damaging in more ways than there is time to outline here. However, without question, quitting smoking can reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.
One of the countless negative effects of smoking is a suppression of HDL cholesterol.
Some studies have found that quitting smoking can increase HDL levels. Indeed, one study found no significant differences in HDL levels between former smokers and people who had never smoked.
In a one-year study of more than 1,500 people, those who quit smoking had twice the increase in HDL as those who resumed smoking within the year. The number of large HDL particles also increased, which further reduced heart disease risk.
One study followed smokers who switched from traditional cigarettes to electronic cigarettes for one year. They found that the switch was associated with an increase in HDL cholesterol of 5 mg/dl, on average.
When it comes to the effect of nicotine replacement patches on HDL levels, research results have been mixed. One study found that nicotine replacement therapy led to higher HDL cholesterol. However, other research suggests that people who use nicotine patches likely won’t see increases in HDL levels until after replacement therapy is completed.
Even in studies where HDL cholesterol levels didn’t increase after people quit smoking, HDL function improved, resulting in less inflammation and other beneficial effects on heart health.
- Lose Weight
When overweight and obese people lose weight, their HDL cholesterol levels usually increase.
What’s more, this benefit seems to occur whether weight loss is achieved by calorie counting, carb restriction, intermittent fasting, weight loss surgery or a combination of diet and exercise.
One study examined HDL levels in more than 3,000 overweight and obese Japanese adults who followed a lifestyle modification program for one year. The researchers found that losing at least 6.6 lbs (3 kg) led to an increase in HDL cholesterol of 4 mg/dl, on average.
In another study, when obese people with type 2 diabetes consumed calorie-restricted diets that provided 20-30% of calories from protein, they experienced significant increases in HDL cholesterol levels.
The key to achieving and maintaining healthy HDL cholesterol levels is choosing the type of diet that makes it easiest for you to lose weight and keep it off.
- Choose to Eat Purple Produce
Consuming purple-colored fruits and vegetables is a delicious way to potentially increase HDL cholesterol. Purple produce contains antioxidants known as anthocyanins.
Studies using anthocyanin extracts have shown that they help fight inflammation, protect your cells from damaging free radicals and may also raise HDL cholesterol levels.
In a 24-week study of 58 people with diabetes, those who took an anthocyanin supplement twice a day experienced a 19% increase in HDL cholesterol, on average, along with other improvements in heart health markers.
In another study, when people with cholesterol issues took anthocyanin extract for 12 weeks, their HDL cholesterol levels increased by 13.7%.
Although these studies used extracts instead of foods, there are several fruits and vegetables that are very high in anthocyanins. These include eggplant, purple corn, red cabbage, blueberries, blackberries and black raspberries.
- Eat Fatty Fish Often
The omega-3 fats in fatty fish provide major benefits to heart health, including a reduction in inflammation and better functioning of the cells that line your arteries. Research shows that eating fatty fish or taking fish oil may also help raise low levels of HDL cholesterol.
In a study of 33 heart disease patients, participants that consumed fatty fish four times per week experienced an increase in HDL cholesterol levels. The particle size of their HDL also increased.
In another study, overweight men who consumed herring five days a week for six weeks had a 5% increase in HDL cholesterol, compared with their levels after eating lean pork and chicken five days a week.
In addition to herring, other types of fatty fish that may help raise HDL cholesterol include salmon, sardines, mackerel and anchovies.
- Avoid Artificial Trans Fats
Artificial trans fats have many negative health effects due to their inflammatory properties.
There are two types of trans fats. One kind occurs naturally in animal products, including full-fat dairy.
In contrast, the artificial trans fats found in margarines and processed foods are created by adding hydrogen to unsaturated vegetable and seed oils. These fats are also known as industrial trans fats or partially hydrogenated fats.
Research has shown that, in addition to increasing inflammation and contributing to several health problems, these artificial trans fats may lower HDL cholesterol levels.
In one study, researchers compared how people’s HDL levels responded when they consumed different margarines.
The study found that participants’ HDL cholesterol levels were 10% lower after consuming margarine containing partially hydrogenated soybean oil, compared to their levels after consuming palm oil.
Another controlled study followed 40 adults who had diets high in different types of trans fats.
They found that HDL cholesterol levels in women were significantly lower after they consumed the diet high in industrial trans fats, compared to the diet containing naturally occurring trans fats.
To protect heart health and keep HDL cholesterol in the healthy range, it’s best to avoid artificial trans fats altogether.
OTHER TREATMENTS FOR HIGH CHOLESTEROL
The lifestyle changes we’ve already discussed including eating less unhealthy fats, exercising regularly, quitting smoking and losing weight will not only boost your HDL, they will also help lower your total cholesterol levels (remember the HDL helps your liver remove LDL and plaque from your body) and makes you healthier overall.
But if these steps don’t lower your LDL enough, your doctor may prescribe medications that lower your cholesterol levels.
Medicines to lower your cholesterol level may be used if you are at high risk for heart disease or if your lipid levels don’t drop after you have eaten a low-fat diet for a couple of months.
There are different kinds of medicine that lower cholesterol. You may need to take just one medicine or you may need to take more than one, depending on how high your cholesterol is. Your doctor will take blood tests every so often to check on your cholesterol level and find out if the medicine is working. To learn more talk with your personal health care provider about their recommendations for your personal course of medications overall.
THE TYPES OF FATS YOU SHOULD AVOID
By now you’ve learned everything there is to know about lipids, lipoproteins and triglycerides. You’ve heard recommendations to eat or avoid certain types of fats. So let’s take a closer look at them. After all, knowledge is power.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats – which are found in butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods. Decades of sound science has proven it can raise your “bad” cholesterol and put you at higher risk for heart disease.
Eating foods that contain saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in your blood. So what are saturated fats?
From a chemical standpoint, saturated fats are simply fat molecules that have no double bonds between carbon molecules because they are saturated with hydrogen molecules. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature.
After you’ve cooked a meal, and left the pan to sit overnight because dishes are a pain in the butt, that solidified fat at the bottom of the pan? That’s a saturated fat, and now it’s in your blood.
Saturated fats occur naturally in many foods but the majority come mainly from animal sources, including meat and dairy products.
You find saturated fats in fatty beef, lamb, pork, poultry, poultry skin, beef fat (tallow), lard and cream, butter, cheese and other dairy products.
What many people don’t realize is that many baked goods and fried foods can also contain high levels of saturated fats. Some plant-based oils, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil, also contain primarily saturated fats, but do not contain cholesterol.
The American Heart Association recommends aiming for a dietary pattern that achieves 5% to 6% of calories from saturated fat.
For example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of them should come from saturated fats. That’s about 13 grams of saturated fats a day.
Limit your red meat intake, and avoid sugary food and drinks. Choose lean meats and poultry without the skin, and cook them without added saturated or trans fat. So no butter, lard, or “vegetable” or canola oils. Replacing foods that are high in saturated fat with healthier options can lower blood cholesterol levels and improve lipid profiles.
You should replace foods high in saturated fats with foods high in monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fats (we’ll cover these shortly). This means eating foods made with liquid vegetable oil but not tropical oils. It also means eating fish and nuts. You also might try to replace some of the meat you eat with beans or legumes.
TRANS FAT/ PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED OIL
Trans fat is considered by many doctors to be the worst type of fat you can eat. Unlike other dietary fats, trans fat — also called trans-fatty acids — both raises your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lowers your HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is no longer “generally recognized as safe” and should be phased out of the production of food over the next several years.
A diet laden with trans fat increases your risk of heart disease, the leading killer of men and women. Here’s some information about trans fat and how to avoid it.
What is Trans Fat?
Some meat and dairy products contain small amounts of naturally occurring trans fat. But most trans fat is formed through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil, which causes the oil to become solid at room temperature.
This partially hydrogenated oil is less likely to spoil, so foods made with it have a longer shelf life. Some restaurants use partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in their deep fryers, because it doesn’t have to be changed as often as do other oils.
Trans Fat in Your Food
The manufactured form of trans fat, known as partially hydrogenated oil, is found in a variety of food products, including:
- Baked goods.Most cakes, cookies, pie crusts and crackers contain shortening, which is usually made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Ready-made frosting is another source of trans fat.
- Potato, corn and tortilla chips often contain trans fat. And while popcorn can be a healthy snack, many types of packaged or microwave popcorn use trans fat to help cook or flavor the popcorn.
- Fried food.Foods that require deep frying — french fries, doughnuts and fried chicken — can contain trans fat from the oil used in the cooking process.
- Refrigerator dough.Products such as canned biscuits and cinnamon rolls often contain trans fat, as do frozen pizza crusts.
- Creamer and margarine.Nondairy coffee creamer and stick margarines also may contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Reading Food Labels
In the United States if a food has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat in a serving, the food label can read 0 grams trans fat. This hidden trans fat can add up quickly, especially if you eat several servings of multiple foods containing less than 0.5 grams a serving.
When you check the food label for trans fat, also check the food’s ingredient list for partially hydrogenated vegetable oil — which indicates that the food contains some trans fat, even if the amount is below 0.5 grams. Eating several portions of foods containing some trans fat may boost your total intake of trans fat to a level high enough to affect your health.
How Low Should You Go?
Trans fat, particularly the manufactured variety found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, appears to have no known health benefit. Experts recommend keeping your intake of trans fat as low as possible.
SO WHAT FAT SHOULD YOU EAT?
20-30% of your daily nutritional intake should be fats. But we’ve seen the types of fat to avoid. What types of fat SHOULD we be eating?
Monounsaturated fats can have a beneficial effect on your heart when eaten in moderation and when used to replace saturated fat and trans fat in your diet.
What are Monounsaturated Fats?
From a chemical standpoint, monounsaturated fats are simply fat molecules that have one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule, this is also called a double bond. Oils that contain monounsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature but start to turn solid when chilled. Olive oil is an example of a type of oil that contains monounsaturated fats.
How do Monounsaturated Fats Affect Your Health?
Monounsaturated fats can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood which lowers your risk of heart disease and stroke. They also provide nutrients to help develop and maintain your body’s cells. Oils rich in monounsaturated fats also contribute vitamin E to the diet, an antioxidant vitamin most Americans need more of.
Are Monounsaturated Fats Better for You Than Saturated Fats or Trans Fats/Partially Hydrogenated Fat?
Yes. While, all fats provide 9 calories per gram, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats can have a positive effect on your health, when eaten in moderation. The bad fats – saturated fats and trans fats/partially hydrogenated fats – can negatively affect your health.
Which Foods Contain Monounsaturated Fats?
Most foods contain a combination of different fats.
Examples of foods high in monounsaturated fats include plant-based liquid oils such as:
- olive oil,
- canola oil,
- peanut oil,
- safflower oil and
- sesame oil.
Other sources include avocados, peanut butter, and many nuts and seeds.
Polyunsaturated fats can have a beneficial effect on your heart when eaten in moderation and when used to replace saturated fat and trans fat/partially hydrogenated fats in your diet.
What are Polyunsaturated Fats?
From a chemical standpoint, polyunsaturated fats are simply fat molecules that have more than one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule, this is also called a double bond. Oils that contain polyunsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature but start to turn solid when chilled. Olive oil is an example of a type of oil that contains polyunsaturated fats (remember that most foods have more than one type of fat).
How do Polyunsaturated Fats Affect Your Health?
Polyunsaturated fats can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. They also provide nutrients to help develop and maintain your body’s cells. Oils rich in polyunsaturated fats also contribute vitamin E to the diet, an antioxidant vitamin most Americans need more of.
Oils rich in polyunsaturated fats also provide essential fats that your body needs but can’t produce itself – such as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. You must get essential fats through food. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are important for many functions in the body.
Are Polyunsaturated Fats Better for You Than Saturated Fats or Trans Fats/Partially Hydrogenated Fat?
Yes. While, all fats provide 9 calories per gram, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats can have a positive effect on your health, when eaten in moderation. The bad fats – saturated fats and trans fats/partially hydrogenated fat – can negatively affect your health.
Which Foods Are High In Polyunsaturated Fats?
Most foods contain a combination of fats.
Foods high in polyunsaturated fat include a number of plant-based oils, including:
- soybean oil,
- corn oil and
- sunflower oil, as well as
- fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and trout.
Other sources include some nuts and seeds such as walnuts and sunflower seeds, tofu and soybeans. The American Heart Association also recommends eating tofu and other forms of soybeans, canola, walnut and flaxseed, and their oils. These foods contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), another omega-3 fatty acid.
SOURCES (INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO)
American Heart Association, Medical News Today, CDC, American Family Physicians, Harvard Health Publishing, WebMD.Com, Univ.of Rochester Medical Center, and the Mayo Clinic
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