Cholesterol Names and Numbers 101
Your physical went great. “I’ll see you in a year, ” says the doctor as she walks out of the exam room. About a week later you get a call from the office that your blood work came back, and your cholesterol is high. Furthermore, they tell you your LDL/HDL ratio is not good. What does this mean? Can you do anything to correct this?
In my nutrition practice, I get this question all the time. Frantic calls from patients who want answers.
First rule: don’t panic.
The best way to figure out a plan is to educate yourself on what this all means, and how you can change your diet and lifestyle to improve your cholesterol profile.
Cardiovascular diseases include coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and congestive heart failure. Because cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and because lifestyle, especially nutrition, is a key component of its prevention and management, it is essential to take a look at these risks, and take action to reduce these potential players in heart disease.
Being overweight or obese, eating fatty foods, smoking cigarettes and being inactive put you at greater risk for heart disease. High blood pressure , triglycerides and cholesterol levels are also important when considering risk factors.
Cholesterol and HDL versus LDL
When it comes to HDL cholesterol — “good” cholesterol – a higher number means lower risk. This is because HDL cholesterol protects against heart disease by taking the “bad” cholesterol out of your blood and keeping it from building up in your arteries.
LDL cholesterol can build up on the walls of your arteries and increase your chances of getting heart disease. That is why LDL cholesterol is referred to as “bad” cholesterol. The lower your LDL cholesterol number, the lower your risk.
The following increase the chances of heart disease:
High LDL “bad” cholesterol (greater than 100 mg/dL)
Low HDL “good” cholesterol (less than 40mg/dL)
Taking Care of Your Heart
You can help control your heart heath by making smart food choices. Choose foods including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat or fat-free dairy products and healthful fats. Limit your calories by filling up on high-fiber foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Fiber can help you lose weight and keep the pounds off by filling you up faster and for a longer time.
Fat Matters for the Heart
The amount and kind of fat you eat makes a difference. Fat should make up 20 percent to 35 percent of your total calories, with only 10 percent coming from unhealthy, saturated fat. Research shows eating too much saturated fat is not good for the heart. Foods such as bacon, red meat, butter and ice cream contain saturated fat.
You also should avoid trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils. These fats can clog arteries and raise cholesterol levels. In terms of diet, try to avoid trans fats, as they can increase LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol levels. Foods prepared with shortening, such as cakes and cookies, often contain trans fats, as do most fried foods and some margarines.
So what raises good cholesterol or HDL?
Unsaturated fat is another story. It has been found to be beneficial for overall cardiovascular health. Foods including olive oil, canola oil, avocados, walnuts and almonds contain unsaturated fat, and help cholesterol levels by raising “good” HDL cholesterol and lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Omega-3 fatty-acids, a type of unsaturated fat, have been found to be helpful in preventing sudden death from heart attacks. Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and herring, contain two types of omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The recommended intake for omega-3 fatty acids is 500 milligrams per day. That’s about two 6-ounce servings of fatty fish per week.
Another type of omega-3 fat, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) provides cardiac benefits. Flaxseeds and walnuts contain ALA. Eat 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed or 1 ounce (about a handful) of walnuts each day for heart health.
Factors other than diet
In addition to helping you lose weight, increased physical activity can also increase your HDL levels. Benefits can be seen with as little as 60 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (not isometric resistance) a week. Go for a walk, swim, jog or bicycle ride. Get more active!
Moderate use of alcohol (particularly red wine) has been linked with higher levels of HDL cholesterol. For healthy adults, that means up to one (4 oz) drink a day. Too much alcohol can cause weight gain, and may increase your blood pressure and triglyceride levels.
Being a smoker and having high cholesterol is clearly a bad combination, but the good news is that quitting can make a big difference — and fast. Stopping smoking yields immediate and long-term benefits for your cholesterol levels and lowers your risk for having a heart attack. Studies have found that HDL levels can increase by as much as 30 percent within just three weeks of stopping smoking. Another reason to quit now!
Knowing what your cholesterol numbers mean, empowers you. You can now make dietary and lifestyle changes that will lead to a healthier heart. Start with small changes. Remember, it’s a process…and health is wealth!
Julene is a registered dietician with a private practice affiliated with the Gastro Group of Northern NJ in Bergen county, NJ. She is also a mother to two beautiful children, and in her spare time (how does she find any?), cheerleads from the sidelines as a soccer mom and serves as the VP of her school’s Parent-Teacher Association.
She is the winner of Bergen magazine’s Best Nutritionist for both 2015 and 2016.