September is National Cholesterol Education Month and that makes it a good time to remind everyone of the importance of healthy cholesterol levels and the lifestyle habits that contribute to them.
High cholesterol levels build over time. That means that if lifestyle habits like healthy eating and exercise are adopted in early adulthood, they can significantly reduce the risk of high cholesterol later in life. As the risk of high cholesterol increases, it can lead to heart disease, heart attack and stroke. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control says that those with high cholesterol have twice the risk of heart disease as those with lower levels and in older adults, men tend to be at higher risk than women.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is made by the body and is found in certain foods. It is found in animal based foods like meat, dairy, seafood, egg yolks and butter but not in fresh, whole foods like fruits, vegetables and grains.
When you eat foods that contain high levels of saturated fat the body can’t process the fat and it builds up inside veins and arteries causing blockages. When veins and arteries become blocked it increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), high cholesterol doubles the risk of heart disease.
How do foods impact cholesterol levels?
Foods that contain high levels of saturated fat can contribute to high cholesterol levels and should be avoided or eaten sparingly. These foods include:
- Fatty beef and processed meats.
- Cakes, cookies and baked goods with high levels of fat.
- Cheese, pizza and french fries.
Cheese, pizza and french fries. You should avoid foods that may contain unhealthy trans fats such as fried foods, microwave popcorn and those that list “hydrogenated oils” in the list of ingredients. Foods that contain contain healthy unsaturated fats include olive, peanut, canola, safflower, and sunflower oils, avocados, walnuts, and sunflower, chia and hemp seeds.
What are healthy and unhealthy levels of cholesterol?
Cholesterol has three components:
- LDL: Low-density lipoproteins – This is called “bad” cholesterol because it is the component that blocks blood vessels.
- HDL: High-density lipoproteins – This is called “good” cholesterol because it helps to reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Triglycerides: This is a type of fat that can build up in the body. If levels are high, along with high levels of LDL, it can increase your risk of heart disease.
The Centers for Disease Control lists the following as the most desirable cholesterol levels:
- Total Cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL
- LDL (“bad” cholesterol): Less than 1 mg/dL
- HDL (“good” cholesterol):60 mg/dL or higher
- Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL
How do I know what my cholesterol levels are?
Cholesterol levels can only be determined through a blood test, so regular check-ups with your physician are important. The American Heart Association recommends that all adults have their cholesterol levels checked every four to six years. The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that adults have their levels checked every five years. If you are diagnosed with high cholesterol your doctor will check it regularly to keep track of your levels.
Healthy lifestyle habits can impact cholesterol levels
Lifestyle habits can help to maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Practicing healthy eating habits and regular exercise are important. If cholesterol levels remain high despite these practices, then medication may be needed to control the levels.
- Exercise increases the levels of HDL, the “good” cholesterol. Try to be active at least 30 minutes a day – the more exercise you get, the better.
- Eat whole grains. The fiber contained in whole grains is good for your digestive system and improves overall health.
- Eat healthy fats: The body needs healthy fats to grow healthy hair, skin and nails. Olive oil, avocado and nuts contain healthy fats.
- Avoid foods that are high in saturated fats like whole milk, cheese and fatty red meats.
- Quit smoking. Smoking narrows your arteries and veins.
What can seniors do?
As a senior with high cholesterol it is important that you be checked regularly by your physician. If medication is necessary to control your cholesterol make sure you take it properly. Include the foods we have listed above in your diet and get some exercise every day. These simple steps can help to control your cholesterol and help you avoid the devastating effects of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.