The good, the bad and the basic
Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance found in every cell in the human body. It helps to produce cell membranes, hormones, vitamin D and bile acids that allow your body to digest fat. Cholesterol also helps in the formation of memories and is vital for neurological function. In many ways, cholesterol is a good thing, but as with all good things, too much of it can be a bad thing.
Your liver and other cells in your body produce about 75 percent of blood cholesterol. The other 25 percent comes from the foods you eat. Cholesterol is found only in animal products, including eggs, meats and whole-fat milk, cheese and ice cream. Many people inherit genes from their family members that cause them to make too much cholesterol. Eating saturated fat, trans fats and dietary cholesterol also increases your overall cholesterol.
Because cholesterol can't travel alone through the bloodstream, it combines with certain proteins to form lipoproteins. The two most important types of lipoproteins are high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). Most cholesterol is LDL cholesterol, the kind that is most likely to clog the blood vessels. When LDL cholesterol levels are high, cholesterol is deposited on the walls of arteries and forms a hard substance called plaque. Over time, plaque causes the arteries to become narrower, decreasing blood flow.
The other type of lipoprotein, HDL cholesterol, removes cholesterol from the blood vessels and carries it back to the liver, where it can be processed and sent out of the body. HDL cholesterol also helps keep the LDL cholesterol from getting lodged into artery walls. A healthy level of HDL may protect against heart attack and stroke, while low levels of HDL have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease.
To decrease your risk for heart disease, the American Heart Association offers these recommendations:
- Eat low-cholesterol foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, beans and fish.
- Use liquid vegetable oil or trans fat-free margarine instead of butter, shortening or stick margarine.
- Eat lean meats and skinless poultry, trim off all noticeable fat before cooking and drain the fat from the pan after browning meats.
- Instead of frying, try boiling, broiling, baking, roasting, poaching, steaming or sautéing.
- Instead of whole milk, use low-fat or nonfat milk, which contains all the nutrients, less the fat. Choose other low-fat or nonfat dairy products including yogurt, cheese and cottage cheese. You also can substitute low-fat buttermilk or yogurt in recipes that call for cream cheese or sour cream.
- Instead of meat, use different sources of protein including fish, beans, peas, nuts and tofu or other soy products.
- Instead of eggs, try egg whites or cholesterol-free egg substitutes.
- Avoid prepared baked goods, which are often made with hydrogenated oils or trans fats.
- Snack on fruits, raw veggies and low-fat dips, low-fat whole-grain crackers, plain unsalted popcorn or pretzels, gelatin or low-fat yogurt.
If you are concerned about cholesterol and heart disease, talk to your doctor. Visit the American Heart Association's website for more information, resources and easy low-cholesterol recipes.
Although not all the factors contributing to heart disease and high cholesterol can be controlled, many can. Start taking care of your body now and it will thank you in the future.
Connect to More
Health & Wellness
Customizable Alzheimer's resource for family caregivers
Almost 50 percent of caregivers say that their caregiving role for an Alzheimer's patient is their single biggest source of stress, well ahead of the economy and their own health.
Steps & Stages is an interactive guide, support system and customized e-mail newsletter that delivers specific, stage-appropriate advice for those providing care for a loved one with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia. The Caring.com website helps caregivers identify what stage somebody is in, understand what symptoms to expect and how to cope with them. It also offers stage groups, where communities of caregivers whose loved ones are at a similar stage can connect online and learn from one another.
New website for men
Healthy Men, a new website developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the Ad Council, helps men learn what preventive medical tests they need and when they need to get them. It includes the latest recommendations on screening for colorectal cancer, abdominal aortic aneurysms and other diseases, immunization information, tips on talking with a doctor, understanding prescriptions and sources of information to help men become more knowledgeable about their health.