You’ve probably heard someone turn down a dessert or an extra serving of bacon and say, “No thanks. I’m trying to monitor my cholesterol levels.
But what is cholesterol? And why does he need to be watched?
It is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in every cell in our body.
It gives elasticity to our cell walls and participates in the synthesis of many important substances, such as hormones, vitamin D and bile necessary for the digestion of fats.
Your cholesterol level is an important factor in determining your risk of developing conditions such as atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries – and cardiovascular disease.
When it comes to actual cholesterol levels, the right amount is good, but too much or too little is bad news.
Cholesterol comes in two varieties, HDL and LDL.
HDL is a good cholesterol. You want to keep it at high levels, around 60 milligrams per deciliter, or mg / dL, or more.
LDL cholesterol is bad cholesterol. You should aim to keep its levels low, at 100 mg / dL or less.
The good and the bad
LDL, which stands for Low Density Lipoprotein, carries cholesterol through the bloodstream and deposits it in the walls of blood vessels.
HDL, on the other hand, is a high density lipoprotein that scavenges cholesterol from blood vessels and moves it to the liver, where it is deposited for elimination.
Like an unruly toddler running through a hallway and leaving toys all over the place, LDL circulates through our blood vessels, leaving behind a path of cholesterol.
As a responsible parent, HDL follows behind, picking up cholesterol and clearing blood vessels.
Just as we tend to struggle in our daily lives when our paths become full of obstacles, our circulatory systems struggle when there is too much cholesterol in our blood vessels.
This is why it is important to maintain the balance between your HDL and LDL levels.
For women, the optimal cholesterol ratio – obtained by dividing the total cholesterol level by the HDL level – is between 3.5 and 1.
To increase your HDL level and lower your LDL level, try these five approaches:
1. Eat more fiber
Eating more fiber, especially soluble fiber, can help lower LDL cholesterol levels. Good sources of fiber include carrots, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, onions, artichokes, bananas, berries, apples and pears.
Some good sources of fiber? Legumes like kidney beans, as well as whole grains (quinoa, oats and barley) and nuts and seeds.
One word of caution: if you’ve been on a low-fiber diet –most Americans do – you can slowly increase your fiber intake to avoid feeling bloated or constipated. Slowly increase 5 grams per week until you reach the USDA recommended 25-30 grams per day.
2. Exercise more
Becoming more physically active is a great way to lower LDL cholesterol. Research shows that high intensity aerobic exercise is particularly effective.
So get started on that stationary bike, start running, sign up for a high intensity interval class, or try Zumba. If you haven’t been active for a while, don’t forget to slow down. Walk, run, or circle the block first, then gradually increase to longer periods of aerobic exercise.
3. Lose weight
Losing extra pounds is also beneficial in lowering LDL cholesterol. In fact, weight loss can lower LDL while increasing HDL. It is the relationship between the two that appears to be the most crucial in maintaining good cardiovascular health.
4. Reduce your unhealthy habits
Quitting smoking can dramatically lower LDL cholesterol. The same goes for reducing the consumption of saturated fat, trans fat, sugar and alcohol.
If you’re used to snacking on ready-made baked goods or indulging in sugary cocktails, try cutting back and indulge in healthier alternatives like carrots and hummus or a glass of water.
5. Increase the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids do not affect LDL cholesterol, but have been shown to increase HDL cholesterol and lower blood pressure.
Good sources of omega-3s include wild salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies, and caviar.
If you don’t like seafood, try supplementing your diet with a tablespoon of cod liver oil or a fish oil pill.
While there are many medications that can be helpful in lowering cholesterol, diet and exercise are always a good place to start. Most people can naturally reduce their LDL and HDL cholesterol to healthy levels through diet and exercise, without spending money on a prescription or facing unwanted side effects.