What to Do About Your Cholesterol
Read the basics on cholesterol and how to lower it.

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Picture of a stethoscope and depiction of heart What to Do About Your Cholesterol

Here's the story about the good, the bad, and the "other" types of cholesterol.

HDL is the good type. HDL cholesterol, or high-density lipoproteins, protects against heart disease, so it's commonly known as "good" cholesterol. Higher numbers are better.

LDL is the bad type. LDL cholesterol, or low-density lipoproteins, increases your risk for heart disease. Too much LDL cholesterol in your blood can build up on the inside walls of your arteries. Over time, the buildup, called plaque, can narrow the space for blood to flow through. Plaque can then break off, causing life-threatening clots that block the blood flow. This can happen in the arteries everywhere in the body but is most dangerous in the arteries that feed the heart, brain, and other vital organs.

Triglycerides. One of the other types of fat that circulates in the blood is called triglycerides. A high level of triglycerides can also raise heart disease risk. Levels that are borderline high (150 to 199 mg/dL) or high (200 mg/dL or higher) may need treatment in some people.

Charting the numbers
Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood.

Total Cholesterol Level

Category

Less than 200 mg/dL

Desirable

200-239 mg/dL

Borderline high

240 mg/dL and above

High

 

HDL Cholesterol Level

Category

<40 mg/dL

Low

>60 mg/dL

High

 

LDL Cholesterol Level

LDL-Cholesterol Category

Less than 100 mg/dL

Optimal

100-129 mg/dL

Near optimal/above optimal

130-159 mg/dL

Borderline high

160-189 mg/dL

High

190 mg/dL and above

Very high

 

Perhaps you've been told your cholesterol is too high. Or maybe you'd just like to keep it at a healthy level to lower your risk of heart disease as much as possible. What level is best for you in part depends on any other health conditions that you may have. Always follow your doctor's orders for treatment. Plus, think about what kind of lifestyle habits will help you reach your cholesterol goals.

Change your eating habits
You can do it! Part of the solution toward lowering your cholesterol and cutting your risk of heart disease is to eat less high-fat, high-cholesterol foods. Your doctor may suggest a specific diet for you. Otherwise, this is how you can follow a heart-healthy diet:

  • Choose foods low in saturated fat. Saturated fat boosts your cholesterol level more than anything else in your diet. Foods from animals are highest in saturated fat. They include fatty cuts of meat, chicken, or other poultry with skin, whole milk, and whole-milk dairy products, lard, and some vegetable oils like coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and palm oils.
  • Choose lean proteins. These can take the place of fatty meats and cheeses. Choose fish, skinless poultry, lean meats, dry beans, limited eggs, and nuts. Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
  • Choose foods low in total fat. Low fat choices can also help you lose weight, if needed, and lower your cholesterol. The right fats can actually be good for you. Certain polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats can make up to 35 percent of your total calories. Use them to replace saturated and trans fats. Use olive or canola oil for cooking and baking.
  • Choose foods high in fiber. This includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains such as whole wheat, oatmeal, brown and wild rice, barley, buckwheat, bulgur, and quinoa. Add in some beans or legumes, such as split peas and lentils, pinto, navy, kidney, black, and garbanzo beans. Beans are rich in lean protein, too.
  • Choose foods low in cholesterol. Cholesterol is in foods from animals. Replace animal foods with healthy plant-based foods.

Be more physically active
Physical activity increases HDL cholesterol (the good kind) and lowers triglycerides and LDL cholesterol (the bad kind). Physical activity can help you lower your blood pressure, lose weight, reduce your stress, and improve your overall fitness, including that of your heart and blood vessels. But always check with your doctor before you increase your activity level.

Lose weight if needed
Being overweight means that you probably have higher blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides than you otherwise would. This places you at higher risk for heart disease. If you are overweight, losing even a little weight can help lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and raise HDL cholesterol.

Stop smoking if you smoke
Don't smoke and avoid secondhand smoke. Smoking increases your risk for heart disease, stroke, heart attack, and cancer.

Cholesterol-lowering drugs

If lifestyle changes are not enough to control cholesterol, your doctor may prescribe cholesterol-lowering medications in addition to eating a heart healthy diet and increasing physical activity.

By Geri K. Metzger, Staff Writer
Created on 06/08/1999
Updated on 06/20/2011
Sources:
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Your guide to lowering your cholesterol with therapeutic lifestyle changes.
  • American Heart Association Scientific Statement. Diet and lifestyle recommendations. Revision 2006. Circulation. 2006;114(1):82-96.
  • National Institutes of Health. Third report of the national cholesterol education program (NCEP). Detection, evaluation, and treatment of high blood cholesterol in adults.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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