Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in our body cells and our blood. We need cholesterol, as it aids in digestion, hormone, bile acid and vitamin D production and more. We get cholesterol from two sources. Our liver makes it and the rest we get through the foods that we eat.
Which foods have it? If it has a tail, a face, a wing, a gill, a hoof, a mommy or comes from one of these, it has cholesterol. If it comes from the ground, it’s cholesterol free.
If you don’t have heart disease, you shouldn’t exceed more than 300 mg of cholesterol through food per day. To help remember that number, I tell people to have no more than a perfect game in bowling, yes that’s 300. If you have heart disease, lowering that daily cholesterol intake to 200 mg is better. Many of us get a lot more cholesterol than we should have in a day. For example, if you eat just one egg yolk, you get close to that 300 number.
Your lipid profile consists of four components: total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL and HDL. LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is commonly known as your “bad” cholesterol. I like to tell people that it’s like a bus of hoodlums that travels from your liver to through your arteries, dropping off the hoodlums to hang around your arteries where it can start to grow into a crowd on your artery walls. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is your good cholesterol. I tell patients that it’s like a paddy wagon that picks up the hoodlums (LDL), takes them to the liver where they are told to get out of Dodge. You want this number to be high. Triglycerides are a blood fat that can be affected by such things as eating too much sugary foods, too much fruit, consuming too much alcohol, being overweight or obese and more. Total cholesterol isn’t the three of these numbers added together. It’s a formula. Don’t worry about the formula; just know your target numbers. Here they are:
Total Cholesterol – Less than 200 mg/dl
LDL – Less than 100 mg/dl (Some doctors raise this to 130 mg/dl if you don’t have heart disease or diabetes. Some lower it to less than 70 mg/dl if you do.)
HDL - More than 40 mg/dl for males and less than 50 mg/dl for women
Triglycerides – Less than 150
If you have one or more high numbers in your lipid panel, there’s a lot you can do to help lower them into the normal range. First, if you need to, lose weight. Just losing 5 to 10 percent of your total body weight, even if you need to lose more, will help. Follow a healthy diet. Eat less animal products and less refined foods. Include fiber rich foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains, and reduce saturated fat and trans fat intake. Choose lean meats, poultry and fish. If you’re a red meat eater, try to cut back to two servings per month. Dairy products should be of the low fat/nonfat variety. Remember, though, that your protein source, even if it’s a leaner choice, is one-quarter of the plate. Starch is also a quarter and non-starchy vegetables cover half the plate. Fruit and dairy are outside the plate. And don’t forget to exercise. Exercising a minimum of 30 minutes most days of the week should provide benefit. If you need to lose weight, 60 minutes most days of the week is better.
Small changes add up to big ones. So start somewhere and build on those changes. You’ll get there and you’ll likely be healthier for it!