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The Cholesterol Balancing Act
Having a low cholesterol count is a good thing, but it isn't the only thing.
During the past 20 years “cholesterol” has become a household word, and concerns about its health dangers have generated thousands of scientific trials. A recent study, for example, shows that Americans’ cholesterol levels are falling. By now we all know that high cholesterol is a one-way ticket to the cardiology unit, so lower levels must be a step in the heart-health direction.
Well, maybe a baby step. While it is true that levels among older people are dropping, this is mostly due to an increased use of statins (pharmaceutical drugs used to treat high cholesterol), not positive lifestyle changes. In addition, there’s little improvement in cholesterol levels in young adults, and the American diet has not taken a turn for the better.
While many folks understand that lowering cholesterol is essential to good health, few know that you need to go beyond simply dropping your levels by also maintaining a proper balance between the two main types of cholesterol, known as LDL and HDL. Making cholesterol-smart lifestyle changes will help you take better care of your heart and live a healthier, longer life.
The paradox of cholesterol is that it can be both friend and foe. This waxy substance is needed to create and maintain walls of every cell in the body and to produce hormones, among many other necessary bodily functions. But we all know that too much cholesterol in the blood is dangerous.
Another recent study helps clarify just why excess cholesterol is such a killer. Researchers found that buildups of cholesterol within arterial walls seem to crystallize, expand and then rupture, releasing material into the bloodstream. This jump-starts the body’s natural clotting process, which in turn essentially shuts down the artery. If that artery leads to the heart muscle itself, the result is a heart attack; if it feeds brain tissue, a stroke ensues.
The bottom line? Having excess cholesterol is really bad for you. If your total cholesterol is less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl), your heart attack risk is relatively low. If it’s between 200 to 239 you’re borderline high risk and at 240 or more, you’re in big trouble.
So where does all this cholesterol come from? Your body makes some of it, while the rest comes from dietary cholesterol in the animal products you consume, such as meats, fish, eggs, butter and cheese. Foods rich in saturated and trans fats (manmade lipids that are harmful to health) also cause your body to produce more cholesterol. In fact, saturated fats affect blood cholesterol levels even more than dietary cholesterol itself.
Cholesterol can’t dissolve in the blood and has to be chauffeured around the body attached to protein packages called lipoprote...