With cholesterol-lowering medications featured during seemingly every TV commercial break, Americans are increasingly faced with the question of whether they have a healthy blood cholesterol level. With an estimated 107 million American adults reporting a blood cholesterol level of 200 mg/dl or over, the answer for many individuals may be “no.”
This waxy, fat-like substance can be found in every cell of the human body. “There are many important functions of cholesterol such as digesting fat, strengthening cell membranes and making hormones,” says Tyler Cymet, DO, an osteopathic family physician from Baltimore, Md. “Problems such as heart disease, obesity and stroke begin when these levels reach a high point.” When it has reached these levels, build-up forms on the artery walls, making it difficult for blood to flow.
Good vs. Bad Cholesterol
There are two major lipoproteins that transport cholesterol throughout the body – low density lipoproteins (LDL) and high density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, contributes to most of the build-up on artery walls. Decreasing LDL means decreasing the risk of heart disease. On the other hand, HDL, the “good” cholesterol, makes up smaller amounts of cholesterol carriers and transports the substance to the liver to be metabolized.
Cholesterol levels should be checked as part of a physical exam to avoid leading to serious diseases. If parents are concerned about checking their children’s cholesterol levels, they should consult with their family physician or pediatrician. For people 35 years and older, blood cholesterol should be checked at least once every five years.
These tests consist of four readings: total cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglyecerides. Triglycerides are the chemical form in which most fat exists in food and in the body. In relation to cholesterol, triglycerides form the plasma lipids.
“It is important to look at all four readings and not simply focus on the total cholesterol level because there are recommended levels for LDL and HDL as well as for total cholesterol and triglycerides,” Dr. Cymet emphasizes.
Recommended Cholesterol Levels
For individuals without any risk factors, the National Cholesterol Education Program recommends the following goals for cholesterol readings: less than 200 mg/dl for total cholesterol, less than 120 mg/dl for LDL and greater than 35 mg/dl for HDL. If readings are above and/or below these, recommendations, Dr. Cymet advises that people visit their physicians for advice on achieving appropriate levels. For individuals with risk factors, their physicians will suggest much lower levels.
There are several controllable factors that can influence cholesterol levels. For instance, exercising more can decrease the LDL levels while increasing HDL levels. The best type of exercise for lowering cholesterol is aerobic exercise where large muscle groups endure continuous, rhythmical movement. In order to achieve the greatest effect, it is recommended that this level of activity be performed at least three times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes. Other factors to consider include weight control and diet.
Many people believe that a fat-free diet alone is the most health-conscious way of eating, but that is not the case. People need to pay attention to the type of fat they are consuming. Saturated fat is the worst fat to consume and is found in beef, pork and butter.
Monosaturated fat, found in canola and olive oil, is much healthier. The average American consumes about 350-450 mg of cholesterol every day with fat being about 35-40% of total caloric intake. Recommended consumption levels are less than 300 mg of cholesterol with fat being 30% of total calories.
While it may be difficult to reduce cholesterol and saturated fat from your diets, remind yourselves of the benefits of lower cholesterol levels. Controlling the intake of cholesterol allows you to take better control of your health by slowing down the fatty build-up in arteries and decreasing risk of heart attack.
“Watch what you eat, exercise more, and you can be on your way to a healthier lifestyle,” explains Dr. Cymet.