Did you know that cholesterol is just one of the many substances created and used by our bodies to keep us healthy? It may surprise you to know that cholesterol itself isn't bad. Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance found in the bloodstream and in all of your cells. It is important because cholesterol is used to give stability and rigidity to the cell membrane.
Cholesterol is produced from two sources: your liver (75 percent) and the food you eat (25 percent).
Know Your Numbers
During a cholesterol screening, you can learn your personal total cholesterol, triglycerides, HDL and LDL levels. HDL is the "healthy" cholesterol, which helps keep the LDL ("lousy cholesterol") from getting lodged into your artery walls. A healthy level of HDL may also protect against heart attacks and stroke. HDL tends to carry cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it's eliminated from the body. Too low of a HDL level (less than 40 mg/dL for men and less than 50 mg/dL for women) has been shown to increase risks of heart disease. When too much LDL cholesterol circulates in the blood, it can slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart. An acceptable ratio for a person to have is 4:1 which means you have a 200:50 (Total cholesterol of 200: and a HDL level of 50). An optimal score of 3:1 (Total cholesterol 150: and a HDL level of 50) is even better to see.
Popular Cholesterol Myths
"My doctor says my ratio is fine, so I don't have to worry about my risk."
In the past, the cholesterol ratio (total cholesterol: HDL) was thought to be more important than individual levels of HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Currently, the medical community is divided on this. It is now believed that the individual cholesterol numbers are more useful than the ratio. If your doctor communicated that your ratio is "fine," go one step further and ask to know all of your individual numbers.
"Thin people don't have to worry about heart health."
Any body type can have high cholesterol. Often people who don't easily put on weight become less aware of how much and which types of fats they are eating. Current research shows that a woman's cholesterol is frequently higher than a man's beginning at age 55, regardless of body size. For this reason, most health care practitioners are recommending that women have their cholesterol checked every few years beginning at age 20.
"The nutrition label says "cholesterol-free" so it's healthy to eat."
When the nutrition label indicates "cholesterol-free," that means the product contains less than two milligrams of cholesterol per serving. "Cholesterol-free" does not mean fat-free. Some products highlighted as "cholesterol-free" are in fact very high in unhealthy fats. Remember, cholesterol only comes from animal fats. Some products have "cholesterol-free" highlighted when they originally wouldn't contain any animal fat. Be sure to look twice at your ingredient list.
Nutrition for a Healthy Heart
Eliminate Trans Fats
Eliminate hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils that contain trans fats which may elevate LDL cholesterol. Margarine, some non-dairy spreads and typical "low calorie, diet foods" are popular sources of trans fats. Even if the nutrition label says "trans fat free" there still maybe a 0.5 gram or less per serving in the package so be sure to take a second look.