More and more physicians are taking a closer look at cholesterol, but not in the way it used to be viewed.

In recent years, the focus has change on cholesterol and your risk for heart disease.

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What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol and heart health are interconnected. Cholesterol helps your body build new cells, insulate nerves, and produce hormones. It is a fat-like substance that travels around in your bloodstream in high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL).

HDL is known as “good cholesterol” because it gobbles up cholesterol and takes it back to the liver for disposal. LDL carries cholesterol around to the parts of your body that need it.
If you have too much of it in your bloodstream it is referred to as “bad cholesterol” because it clings to the walls of your arteries, thickening and clogging them up causing atheroschlerosis, a form of heart disease.
These clogged arteries slow down or prevent blood flow to your heart and other organs which can lead to a stroke or a heart attack. In general, high levels of HDL and low levels of LDL help reduce the risk of heart disease.

What are heart-healthy cholesterol levels?

Cholesterol Chart

Cholesterol and Heart Health

  • The factors below can affect your cholesterol levels:
    • Diet. Saturated fat, trans fat, carbohydrates, and cholesterol in the food you eat increase cholesterol levels. Reducing the amount of saturated fat, trans fats and sugars in your diet and increasing the amount of fiber helps lower your blood cholesterol level.
    • Weight. In addition to being a risk factor for heart disease, being overweight can increase your cholesterol. Losing weight can help lower your LDL, total cholesterol levels as well as raise your HDL.
      Exercise. Regular exercise can lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.
    • Age and Gender. As we age, cholesterol levels rise. Before menopause, women tend to have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. After menopause, however, women’s LDL levels tend to rise.
    • Heredity. Your genes partly determine how much cholesterol your body makes. High blood cholesterol can run in families.
    • Medical conditions. Some medical conditions cause an elevation of cholesterol levels in the blood. These include hypothyroidism, liver disease and kidney disease.
    • Medications. Some medicines, like steroids and progestins, may increase “bad” cholesterol and decrease the “good” cholesterol.

    Can eating enough good cholesterol offset bad cholesterol?

    “We used to think a large amount of good cholesterol would offset the impact of high bad cholesterol levels, but recent studies have shown this is not the case,” says Dr. Gillinov, Cleveland clinic cardiac surgeon and author of Heart 411.

    So instead of looking at total cholesterol, which includes both your “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, physicians now focus on LDL cholesterol.
    Although a high HDL level is certainly good, it means your body may still be depositing cholesterol in your arteries, which can lead to heart attack, stroke and other problems,

    Dr. Gillinov explains. “If your LDL level is very high, you will need a statin or other cholesterol-lowering drug to bring it down. That’s because your liver makes about 75 percent of the cholesterol in your body, and diet is only responsible for 25 percent,” explains Dr. Gillinov.

    More research on cholesterol, particularly dietary cholesterol, needs to be done. Even so, it’s clear that diet plays an important role in heart health. Trans fats raise your LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL cholesterol. Both of these changes are associated with increased risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Trans fats also offer no nutritional value.

    Saturated fats are another source of LDL cholesterol and should be consumed sparingly.

    Foods containing saturated fats include:

    • sweet treats and pastries such as donuts, cakes, and cookies
    • sugary beverages
    • red meat, fatty meat, and highly-processed meat
    • palm and coconut oils
    • cocoa butter, butter, shortening, lard, and stick margarine
    • fried foods
    • whole-fat dairy products such as milk, butter, cheese, and cream

    These high-cholesterol foods, along with processed and fast foods, can contribute to weight gain and obesity. Being overweight or obese raises your risk of heart disease, as well as other health conditions.
    High cholesterol itself does not cause any symptoms, so many people are unaware that their cholesterol levels are too high.

    Therefore, it is important to know what your cholesterol numbers are. Cholesterol and heart health are connected. Lowering cholesterol levels that are too high lessens the risk for developing heart disease and reduces the chance of a heart attack or dying of heart disease.