SOUND MIND, SOUND BODY - Keeping an eye on cholesterol wise

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Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is made in the liver and cells, and is commonly found in animal products such as meat, eggs and dairy.

The body requires some cholesterol to function, but when excess cholesterol is found in the blood it can clog the wall of the arteries.

People with high cholesterol are at risk for heart disease and stroke. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 of every 6 adult Americans has high blood cholesterol.

Cholesterol, like high blood pressure, is known as the "silent killer" because there are no symptoms and it leads people to chronic heart problems that can cause death.

As cholesterol travels through the body it is attached to a protein called lipoprotein. Lipoproteins are classified as low density (LDL) and high density (HDL). LDL is the "bad" cholesterol that builds plaque on artery walls whereas HDL is the "good" cholesterol that helps the body. The confusing part about cholesterol is that doctors measure the LDL and the HDL separately. LDL should be a low number, optimally below 100 milligrams per deciliter. HDL should be close to 60 mg/dl. If the HDL level is below 40 that means that a person is at high risk for heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, smoking, being overweight and being sedentary can all result in lower HDL cholesterol.

The combined score should be below 200 mg/dl. Cholesterol between 200 to 239 mg/dl is borderline high and 240 mg/dl and above is considered high cholesterol.

Unfortunately, genetics plays an important role in determining a person's cholesterol level.

Most people have come across that person who could eat "anything" including bacon, eggs, fast food and red meat, and still have "good" cholesterol. Or that granola-munching person who consistently has high cholesterol. That would be due to genetics. However, people with naturally high cholesterol should really pay attention to what they eat as that would directly affect the cholesterol level. On the other hand, people who eat "anything" should not make that an excuse due to those high-cholesterol foods can cause colon cancer, obesity and fatigue.

Anyone over 20 years old should get cholesterol levels checked by their doctor at least every five years. If you are experiencing high cholesterol in your 20s that should be a major indicator of lifestyle changes and concern for heart disease or stroke in your later years.

In my opinion, the best way to maintain a healthy cholesterol level is through a lifestyle change.

Eating low-cholesterol foods including low-fat dairy options, seasonal berries and vegetables, lean meats, beans and spices instead of salt are recommended. The average daily cholesterol intake should be less than 300 milligrams per day.

People with heart disease should ingest less than 200 milligrams per day. Exercising at least 30 minutes, three days per week can increase HDL levels and help reduce the chances of obesity. Reducing smoking and alcohol consumption will also help in reducing cholesterol levels.

Understanding cholesterol levels and the healthy ranges not only maintains a healthy heart, but can reduce the risk of heart problems later in life. In addition, implementing a healthy lifestyle saves money on medication and doctor expenses, and also can save your life.

Elizabeth Kovar has been working in the fitness industry since 2006 with international experience in India and Australia. She has a master's degree in recreation and tourism and is a programs coordinator at the YMCA where she trains, instructs fitness classes and assists in marketing projects. She welcomes questions and comments and can be reached at ekovar@wwymca.org.

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