Crunching the numbers: Ways to combat high cholesterol

October 25, 2010

The bad news: High cholesterol plays a key role in whether you develop heart disease or suffer a stroke or a heart attack. The good news: You can do something about it. Many factors contribute to high cholesterol. While you can't change your genes, age or gender—which all affect cholesterol—you can take steps to improve your cholesterol levels and your health.

First, you need to understand cholesterol. Cholesterol comes from two sources: your body and food. The cholesterol produced in your body naturally (mostly in the liver) is called blood cholesterol. The cholesterol found in the foods you eat is known as dietary cholesterol.

• Blood cholesterol. The cholesterol produced in your body is a waxy, fatlike substance that's needed to form cell membranes and other tissues. Your body already produces enough blood cholesterol on its own to perform this function.

• Dietary cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol is found in meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products. According to the American Heart Association, your average daily intake of dietary cholesterol should be less than 300 milligrams. And what you consume greatly influences your cholesterol numbers.

Learn your numbers
Schedule a cholesterol test. Your goals: Total cholesterol should measure less than 200 (the number refers to milligrams per deciliter of blood). A score ranging from 200 to 239—borderline high—means you may be at increased risk for heart disease and stroke. If your total cholesterol is 240 or above, you are at increased risk. It's also important to find out your HDL (known as “good” cholesterol because it carries cholesterol out of the arteries and back to the liver for reprocessing or excretion.); LDL (known as the “bad” cholesterol because it leaves the bloodstream and is deposited in artery walls, causing plaque to build up); and triglyceride scores. HDLs should measure at least 40 (50 for women), and a level of 60 is considered protective against heart disease. LDLs ideally should be under 100 and triglycerides under 150.

Eat smart
Certain types of fats—saturated fat, trans fats and dietary cholesterol—raise blood cholesterol. To lower LDL cholesterol, limit saturated fat to less than 7 percent of daily calories, avoid trans fats (found in many baked goods) and keep dietary cholesterol at less than 200 milligrams a day. Use polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats like safflower, sesame, sunflower, corn, soybean, canola, olive and peanut oils. Eat no more than six ounces of lean meat, fish or skinless poultry a day. Choose plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods. Switch to fat-free or low-fat dairy products; increase soluble fiber found in foods like oats, beans and citrus fruits; and use cholesterol-lowering margarines and salad dressings that contain plant stanols or plant sterols.

Adopt healthier lifestyle habits
Regular exercise can help raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol. Get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity most days of the week, or 60 to 90 minutes if you need to lose weight. Smoking lowers good levels and increases the blood's tendency to clot, so if you smoke, enroll in a program to help you quit.

See your doctor
Ask your doctor to interpret your numbers and to help you create a plan that includes nutritional changes as well as other lifestyle modifications. If lifestyle changes haven't improved your cholesterol enough, your doctor may prescribe cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Remember, your cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease aren't carved in stone. They can change as long as you're willing to!