We often think of cholesterol as being harmful, but the truth is that our bodies need an adequate amount of it to function. Cholesterol is used as a building block to make everything from the walls of our cells to important hormones like estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol. It is essential for the production of vitamin D, which we need to build and maintain strong bones. It is also a central component of bile, which allows us to break down and digest fats from food.
However, the typical North American diet contains far too many foods that increase our cholesterol levels above and beyond what our bodies can use. Excess total cholesterol and LDL “bad” cholesterol will stick to the walls of our blood vessels, narrowing the space for blood to flow. This prevents oxygen and nutrients from reaching vital organs. Most dangerously, it can prevent oxygen from getting to the heart or brain, increasing our risk for heart attack and stroke.
Having high cholesterol is like having construction along a busy highway that narrows lanes and slows down traffic. If the construction closes the highway altogether, we never make it to our destination and there are negative consequences. This is what happens when cholesterol narrows our blood vessels and blocks blood flow to major organs: oxygen and nutrients don’t make it to their destination, and it results in organ and tissue damage.
A reduction in total cholesterol and LDL “bad” cholesterol levels, and an increase in HDL “good” cholesterol levels directly results in a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, so it is vital that we achieve healthy levels of cholesterol.
Dr. Hilary's Lifestyle Tips To Reduce Cholesterol
Cholesterol-lowering foods: Follow a high-fibre diet comprised of vegetables, fruits, fish, lean poultry, legumes, whole grains, nuts and olive oil.
Foods to avoid
Trans fats:These human-made fats are not naturally occurring and are harmful to the body. They are found in many packaged and fried foods and are the biggest culprit for increasing bad cholesterol and decreasing good cholesterol. Trans fats should be completely avoided in the diet.
Saturated fats: These are naturally occurring fats that are healthy at low levels but contribute to high cholesterol when eaten in high amounts. They are found in foods like red meat, dairy, coconut, avocado, and nuts. Try to keep saturated fats to a maximum of 6% of your daily calories, which would be about 13g per day for a standard 2000kcal diet.
Sugars: Studies show that a higher intake of added sugar is associated with increased total cholesterol and LDL “bad” cholesterol, and increased risk of heart disease. We should keep sugar in the diet as low as possible, with 25g being our daily maximum. Reading nutrition labels and avoiding sugary beverages and snacks is the best way to minimize sugar intake.
Foods containing cholesterol can be eaten in moderate amounts. Eggs, for example, are a healthy source of nutrients and protein, and it is recommended that we eat a maximum of 7 eggs weekly to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
Maintain a healthy weight: Regular exercise and a healthy diet are important to maintaining a healthy weight, which is directly correlated with improving cholesterol levels.
Physical activity: Moderate intensity aerobic exercise for at least 150 minutes per week is the best type of exercise for improving HDL “good” cholesterol and reducing total and LDL “bad” and cholesterol levels.
Quit smoking: Smoking is a major risk factor the development of heart disease, and when combined with high cholesterol it presents an even greater risk for heart disease than either risk factor alone.
Lab testing: A cholesterol panel should be monitored as part of your annual lab work, with a baseline level established as early as 18 years of age.
At ideal levels, cholesterol allows our body to function in a healthy way. However, many diets contain far too many foods that increase our cholesterol levels above what our bodies can use. Excess cholesterol can build up in our blood vessels, blocking oxygen from reaching our organs and causing damage to the body.
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