Living Well: Heart health — Do you know your cholesterol levels?
While what we eat does directly influence cholesterol levels in our bodies, the foods with the most impact are not the foods that contain dietary cholesterol, such as eggs.
“We now understand that cholesterol is highly dependent on our diet, but it’s saturated fat (negatively) and fiber (positively) that really influence our cholesterol more than dietary cholesterol itself,” said Julia von Allmen, family medicine physician assistant at Memorial Regional Health.
It’s still important to pay attention to dietary cholesterol, though, and von Allmen said it’s recommended to eat a diet with 300 milligrams or less of cholesterol per day. A single egg has about 180 milligrams of cholesterol.
Good vs. bad cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that the body needs to build cells. Too much of it in the body can increase the risk for heart disease or stroke.
“Cholesterol comes from two sources. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need. The remainder of the cholesterol in your body comes from foods derived from animals. For example, meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products all contain cholesterol, called dietary cholesterol,” according to the American Heart Association. “Those same foods are high in saturated and trans fats. Those fats cause your liver to make more cholesterol than it otherwise would. For some people, this added production means they go from a normal cholesterol level to one that’s unhealthy.”
There are three types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and triglycerides.
“HDL, or ‘good cholesterol,’ is very important in clearing our blood vessels of fatty build-up known as plaque. The higher the HDL level, the better,” von Allmen said.
Healthy HDL cholesterol levels may protect against heart attack and stroke, while studies show that low HDL levels increase the risk of heart disease.
LDL cholesterol, or “bad cholesterol,” contributes to plaque in the arteries, which causes arteries to narrow and block blood flow to and from your heart and other organs, increasing the risk of heart attack, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in the body, storing excess energy from food.
“A high triglyceride level combined with high LDL (bad) cholesterol or low HDL (good) cholesterol is linked with fatty buildups within the artery walls, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke,” according to the American Heart Association.
Striking the right balance
Our bodies and cells need cholesterol to function, so it’s essential not to push cholesterol levels too low, von Allmen said. This might occur as a result of medications used to treat high cholesterol levels, but it’s typically corrected by decreasing the dose of such medications.
Because there are typically no early warning signs or symptoms of high cholesterol, it’s important to have your cholesterol levels checked with a blood test during your annual physical exam.
von Allmen recommends eating a diet based on whole foods and mostly plants (fiber) as a great foundation for healthy cholesterol levels. Saturated fats, found in animal products, fatty meats and processed foods, should be limited as they can worsen cholesterol levels.
- Myth: Cholesterol isn’t a concern for children. High cholesterol can be inherited as a genetic disorder, which is underdiagnosed worldwide. Children with parents or grandparents who have evidence of heart disease, history of high cholesterol levels or sudden cardiac death before age 55 should get tested.
- Myth: You don’t need a cholesterol check until middle age. All adults aged 30 and older should have their cholesterol checked every four to six years, depending on their heart disease risk.
- Myth: Thin people don’t have high cholesterol. While overweight people are more likely to have high cholesterol, a person with any body type can have high cholesterol.
- Myth: Only men need to worry about cholesterol. Men and women both tend to see higher triglyceride and cholesterol levels as they get older. Weight gain contributes to higher levels.
- Myth: You should wait for your doctor to mention cholesterol. Starting at age 20, ask your doctor to test your cholesterol, assess your risk factors and estimate your risk for heart attack or stroke.
- Myth: If the nutrition label shows no cholesterol, a food is “heart-healthy.” Pay attention to food labels, but it’s more important to look for saturated fat, trans fat and total calories.
Source: American Heart Association
Family Medicine at Memorial Regional Health
Family physicians are an excellent starting point for any of your medical needs. From annual physicals and blood work to the occasional cold or flu, or if you’re simply not feeling well and can’t pinpoint the cause – the physicians, physician assistants and other clinical staff at Memorial Regional Health can assist you with ease and expertise. Call 970-826-2400 to schedule an appointment.
“Many times, we can significantly influence our health by making our own empowered choices about how we live. Doing so is sometimes difficult, though, and is almost always very difficult to do alone,” von Allmen said. “Your healthcare team, including your primary care provider, nurse, dietician, counselor and health coach, can be of great support in achieving your best health. Asking for help is often the first step to empowerment.”