Fitness Facts: What to know about cholesterol

By Connie Colbert
GCU Director of Health Services

If you have high cholesterol, you are at risk for heart disease.

The effects of high cholesterol tend to develop over the course of many years and cause a condition called atherosclerosis, the hardening and narrowing of the arteries. Over time, plaque develop and silently and slowly block arteries, putting blood flow at risk.

Connie Colbert

Atherosclerosis is the usual cause of heart attacks, strokes and peripheral vascular disease. Common effects of high cholesterol because of atherosclerosis include angina (chest pain), coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

It is important to know your numbers. Even thin, active people can have elevated cholesterol and not be aware of it.

Our cholesterol levels are regulated by diet, exercise and genetics. Some families have a strong genetic predisposition to high cholesterol. While diet and exercise may help lower levels, some people also may need the help of lipid-lowering medication to further decrease their risk of heart disease.

It is important to know your numbers so you can prevent this development of plaque, which will in turn place you at a higher risk of heart disease. This is a silent progression with no symptoms, so awareness is the first step.

When should I get tested?

  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the American College of Physicians recommend checking cholesterol starting at age 35 for males and 45 for females.
  • The U.S. National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) recommends that all adults 20 years or older have a fasting lipid profile done. A lipid profile consists of total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, HDL-cholesterol and triglycerides. Experts recommend the lipid profile be repeated every five years if normal and more often if abnormal.
  • If your family has a history of early heart attacks or heart disease, or if a child has obesity or diabetes, doctors may recommend screening for high cholesterol more often.

What is a high-risk category?

I’m glad you asked! Here are a few, according to the American Heart Association:

  • Family history of high LDL cholesterol
  • Age:Men 45 years and older and women 55 years and older are at increased risk for heart disease. As you age, your body can’t clear cholesterol as well as it used to.
  • High blood pressure or type 2 diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Not getting enough physical activity: Regular exercise can help decrease your total cholesterol level and may increase the amount of HDL in your body. People who exercise regularly lower their risk for heart disease, even if their lipid levels do not change.
  • Eating too much saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol – and not enough fruits and vegetables
  • Taking certain medicines, such as medicines to lower blood pressure
  • Eating too much sugar and starch
  • Not eating enough fruits, vegetables and unsaturated fat (such as olive oil)
  • Not eating enough fiber

What are the desired blood lipid levels?

Total cholesterol:

  • Less than 200 mg/dL = Desirable
  • 200-239 mg/dL = Borderline high
  • 240 mg/dL and above = High

LDL cholesterol:

  • Less than 100 mg/dL = Optimal
  • 100-129 mg/dL = Near/above optimal
  • 130-159 mg/dL = Borderline high
  • 160-189 mg/dL = High
  • 190 mg/dL and above = Very high

HDL cholesterol:

  • Below 40 mg/dL = Suboptimal (Low)
  • 60 mg/dL and above = Optimal (High)

Triglycerides:

  • Less than 150 mg/dL = Normal
  • 150-199 mg/dL = Borderline high
  • 200-499 mg/dL = High
  • 500 mg/dL and above = Very high

The key to protecting your heart is prevention. Healthy eating and exercise are a start, but knowing your family’s health history and getting tested are important next steps to a healthier you.

Here are some general dietary recommendations to help decrease your risk and lower cholesterol:

  • Reduce intake of saturated fats to 15-20 grams of saturated fat per day (7% or less of daily calories).
  • Limit foods that are high in saturated or trans fats, sugar and sodium (salt).
  • Reduce cholesterol intake to 200 mg or less daily.
  • Eat 20-30 grams of fiber daily. Fiber is contained in plant foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains).
  • Use nonfat dairy products.
  • Eat less red meat and processed meat.
  • Eat two servings weekly of fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, mackerel and halibut. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce triglycerides and blood clotting.
  • Limit fried foods.
  • Limit sugary foods and beverages.
  • Choose foods high in unsaturated fats, such as avocados and nuts.

More information:

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