If you get an annual physical, you probably get blood work done as well. Among the results, you will find your cholesterol numbers labeled as Total Cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and Triglycerides. Do you know what they are, and what are considered “healthy” limits for each? It may be confusing, but hopefully this article will help you make sense of the differences.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in animal sources, including meat, dairy products, and eggs. Our body (yes, we are animals!) produces all of the cholesterol we need via the liver for such tasks as making hormones and converting the sun’s rays to Vitamin D for our body to use. Therefore, we really don’t need any extra cholesterol from food. There is also a genetic component. If someone has high cholesterol, it could be from a combination of diet and genetics.
Bad cholesterol is called LDL (think “lousy”), and should be below 100. This type binds to artery walls and contributes to plaque build-up. Eating a diet high in saturated and trans fats (the unhealthy kind) contributes to a high LDL. Good cholesterol is called HDL (think “healthy), and should be above 50. This type is thought to aid in lowering the risk of heart disease by binding to plaque and carrying it to the liver, where it is processed out of the body.
Finally, triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood. We need some for good health, but too much can raise the risk of heart disease. Triglyceride levels should be below 150. Total cholesterol should be below 200, and is calculated using the three values.
Does eating a diet high in healthy fats raise your HDL? Not really, but it DOES help lower LDL and triglycerides, which is why it’s important to choose foods with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, while limiting saturated and trans fat foods. Keep in mind, the adage “getting too much of a good thing” applies here! Fat in general has a lot of calories – 9 calories per gram – so eating too much can contribute to weight gain.
What steps can you take to ensure your cholesterol numbers are the best that they can be? Limit the amount of overall fat consumed, but if you do, choose foods with healthy fats like avocados and nuts, and cook with healthy fats like olive, canola, and peanut oils. Also choose lean proteins like chicken, turkey, and bison, and low-fat dairy products. Include non-meat proteins like eggs, nuts, and beans. Limiting the use of salad dressings, butter, and mayonnaise also helps. Of course, make sure you get your fruits and veggies everyday!
As for increasing activity level, any time of activity that keeps you moving helps increase HDL. This includes recreational, daily living, and traditional gym activities. What if you find yourself doing everything right, but your cholesterol is still high? If this is the case, perhaps medication may be your best option in helping lower your numbers to a safe level along with healthy diet and activity.
Enjoy the food you eat because food is meant to be enjoyed! However, making healthy choices overall contributes to a healthier body. We want to make sure that the body we are in is working at its best, so let’s treat it well!