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Manage Your Health

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Cholesterol and lifestyle

Why Cholesterol Is Important

Your body needs cholesterol to work well. But cholesterol levels that are too high can be dangerous.

Extra cholesterol in your blood builds up inside the walls of your heart’s arteries (blood vessels). This buildup is called plaque. It narrows your arteries and reduces, or even stops, the blood flow. This can cause a heart attack, stroke, or other serious heart disease.

See also: Cholesterol - drug treatment

Your Cholesterol Numbers

Cholesterol is measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Most people should have their blood cholesterol levels tested at least every 5 years once they reach ages 20 - 45. Have your cholesterol checked more often (probably every year) if you have:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Blood flow problems to your feet or legs
  • Had a stroke

A blood cholesterol test measures the level of total cholesterol. This includes both HDL ("good") cholesterol and LDL ("bad") cholesterol.

Your LDL level is what doctors watch most closely. You want it to be low. If it gets too high, you will need to treat it.

Treatment includes:

  • Eating a healthy diet that can lower your cholesterol
  • Losing weight (if you are overweight)
  • Exercising

You may also need medicine to lower your cholesterol.

  • If you have heart disease or diabetes, your LDL cholesterol should stay below 100 mg/dL.
  • If you are at risk for heart disease (even if you do not yet have any heart problems), your LDL cholesterol should be below 130 mg/dL.
  • Almost everyone else may get health benefits from LDL cholesterol that is lower than 160 to 190 mg/dL.

You want your HDL cholesterol to be high.

  • For men, it should be above 40 mg/dL.
  • For women, it should be above 50 mg/dL.
  • Exercise helps raise your HDL cholesterol.

It is still important to eat right, keep a healthy weight, and exercise even if:

  • You do not have heart disease or diabetes
  • Your cholesterol levels are in the normal range

These healthy habits may help prevent future heart attacks and other health problems.

Eating Right

Eat foods that are naturally low in fat. These include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Keep them low in fat. Using low-fat toppings, sauces, and dressings will help.

  • Look at food labels. Pay special attention to the level of saturated fat.
  • Avoid or limit foods that are high in saturated fat (more than 20% of the total fat). Eating too much saturated fat is one of the major risk factors for heart disease.
  • Choose lean protein foods -- soy, fish, skinless chicken, very lean meat, and fat-free or 1% dairy products.
  • Look for the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" on food labels. Do NOT eat foods with these. They are loaded with saturated fats and trans fats.
  • Limit how much fried and processed foods you eat. Limit how many commercially prepared baked goods (such as donuts, cookies, and crackers) you eat. They may contain a lot of saturated fats or trans fats.
  • Eat fewer products that are high in saturated fats. Some of these are egg yolks, hard cheeses, whole milk, cream, ice cream, butter, and fatty meats (and large portions of meats).
  • Pay attention to how foods are prepared. Healthy ways to cook fish, chicken, and lean meats are broiling, grilling, poaching, and baking.

Eat foods that are high in soluble fiber. Some of these are oats, bran, split peas and lentils, beans (such as kidney, black, and navy beans), some cereals, and brown rice.

Learn how to shop for and cook foods that are healthy for your heart. Learn how to read food labels to choose healthy foods. Stay away from fast-food restaurants, where healthy choices can be hard to find.

See also:

Getting plenty of exercise will also help. Talk with your doctor about what kind of exercise might be best for you.

References

American Heart Association Nutrition Committee; Lichtenstein AH, Appel LJ, Brands M, Carnethon M, Daniels S, et al. Diet and lifestyle recommendations revision 2006: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Circulation. 2006 Jul 4;114(1):82-96.

Krauss RM. Nutrition and cardiovascular disease. In: Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Zipes DP, eds. Libby: Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 8th ed. Saunders;2007:chap 44.

Mosca L, Banka CL, Benjamin EJ, Berra K, Bushnell C, Dolor RJ, et al. Evidence-based guidelines for cardiovascular disease prevention in women: 2007 update. Circulation. 2007 Mar 20;115(11):1481-501.

Smith SC Jr, Allen J, Blair SN, Bonow RO, Brass LM, Fonarow GC, et al. AHA/ACC guidelines for secondary prevention for patients with coronary and other atherosclerotic vascular disease: 2006 update endorsed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2006 May 16;47(10):2130-9.


Review Date: 10/7/2010
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc. Previously reviewed by Larry A. Weinrauch MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Cardiovascular Disease and Clinical Outcomes Research, Watertown, MA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network (12/13/2008).
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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