Cholesterol has historically had a negative stigma attached to it, perhaps because it's usually followed with talk of how to keep its levels low and the dangers of it being high. But what exactly is it? Brooke Alpert, M.S., RD, CDN, author of The Diet Detox (available for preorder) explains, “Cholesterol is a wax-like substance that is actually necessary for living. It's essential to protect your cells, make hormones, and convert sun exposure to vitamin D."
Its existence gets a bit tricky, though: Each and every cell in your body has cholesterol, which the liver produces on its own in the exact quantity necessary to carry out its functions. However, because cholesterol is essentially a fat-like substance, having too much of it can cause plaque buildup, which could lead to coronary heart disease or a heart attack. But what's possibly even more alarming is that oftentimes a person with high cholesterol won't show signs or symptoms until the buildup has progressed to a dangerous level.
Also, there's the whole LDL and HDL thing, which can get a little confusing. In layman's terms, LDL translates to low-density lipoproteins, which travel through the bloodstream to deliver cholesterol to other cells, but high levels of these can break off and stick to the artery walls, which is why it's often referred to as the "bad cholesterol." HDL, or high-density lipoproteins, is considered the "good cholesterol" because they carry excess cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver, which then removes it from the body or uses it for digestion. In other words, the higher your levels of HDL and the lower your levels of LDL, the better.
So how can you ensure that you have a healthy levels of each? Keep scrolling for more info.
What Causes High LDL Levels?
There are several factors that could contribute to high cholesterol:
- Genetics: Familial hypercholesterolemia is a condition that begins at birth wherein LDL levels run very high. This is caused by a chromosomal defect that interferes with the body's ability to remove LDL from the blood.
- Eating foods high in trans and saturated fat: Trans fats include the likes of cakes, pies, cookies, margarine, fried foods, microwave popcorn, and donuts—basically all foods made with partially hydrogenated oils that coagulate at room temperature (think about those hardening in your arteries). Saturated fats include foods like fatty meats, butter, cream, cheese, and dairy made with whole or 2% milk—these aren't as bad for you as trans fats, but the American Heart Association recommends eating no more than 5% to 6% of total daily calories.
- Smoking: Doing so lowers your HDL levels (the good cholesterol) and damages blood vessels.
- Inactivity: Get moving! Working out helps increase HDL levels (as does healthy weight loss).
What Can You Do to Lower Your LDL?
What you eat is extremely important for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. But Alpert says a big myth is that foods high in cholesterol are to blame: "Dietary cholesterol, such as the cholesterol found in shrimp or eggs, will not increase your blood levels of cholesterol. Fortunately this information is slowly becoming more mainstream, and that's why we've been eating whole eggs and more fat."
Instead, focus on eating little to no trans or saturated fats (you can go ahead and give packaged, processed foods the boot), and watch your sugar intake. In fact, Alpert says sugar-induced inflammation is more of a concern than cholesterol: "Inflammation is more damaging to the body and especially the heart than anything else. Avoiding excess sugar from sodas, juices, overly flavored and sweetened foods, and beverages is the best thing you can do for your health." She also recommends eating loads of veggies and opting for grass-fed red meat over fatty red meats.
We know that when tempting foods abound, it's hard to stick to wholly sources foods every time, which is where supplements come in. Alpert recommends taking a daily fish oil supplement, and studies suggest that whey protein supplements can lower your LDL levels and total cholesterol. And in terms of lifestyle, Alpert is a big fan of regular exercise and adequate sleep. Also consider cutting out smoking and drinking less, and visit your doctor regularly to monitor your LDLs and HDLs and overall heart function.
Lastly, if your high cholesterol is caused by genetics, your doctor may prescribe a medication to regulate levels, though maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle should, of course, still be done in conjunction.
Before taking supplements or changing your diet, please speak with a medical professional.
Next up, check out these low-glycemic foods to keep your blood sugar regulated.