It is estimated that more than 102 million American adults who are over the age of 20, have a total cholesterol level of at least 200 mg/dL (greater than normal value) according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (1). While September is considered National Cholesterol Education Month, I thought why not start early and provide some education on this topic?
What is cholesterol
Cholesterol (mostly made in the liver), is actually part of the steroid family and is considered to be an essential function in animal cell membranes (2). In fact, we need cholesterol in order to produce other hormones. However, too much cholesterol, as we know, can cause cardiovascular disease (CVD). Since cholesterol is not able to dissolve in water, our bodies must get rid of the cholesterol through a special type of transportation system called lipoproteins. There is a total of seven different groups of lipoproteins. Let’s take a look and understand the different types of lipoproteins that we commonly see and measure.
- LDL Cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein): We’ve heard this being the “bad” cholesterol. This type of lipoprotein picks up cholesterol from the liver and is released to the rest of the body (in simpler terms). Higher levels of LDL are what causes an increased risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). Recommended levels are less than 100 mg/dL.
- HDL Cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein): We’ve heard of these guys as being the “good” cholesterol. The reason for this is that this lipoprotein transports cholesterol from the body and goes back to the liver. Let’s just say it makes things a little “cleaner.” Recommended levels are greater than 60 mg/dL. At risk levels are different for men and women.
What causes high cholesterol
High cholesterol is defined as having a total cholesterol level greater than or equal to 240 mg/dL. When we talk about hypercholesterolemia (fancy term for high cholesterol), it is important to understand how this can contribute to other conditions such as arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis (cholesterol plaque buildup in the arteries). Cardiovascular disease can be prevented and potentially reversed through medical nutrition therapy and by speaking to your cardiologist. There are a few things that can contribute to CVD. Certain conditions such as hypertension, certain lifestyle factors such as smoking, and diabetes can all contribute to heart disease. We also know that genetics can play a role in developing heart disease as well. Fortunately, WE have the power to make healthier lifestyle choices to overcome these risks. As mentioned previously, it is crucial to speak with your doctor and monitor your lab values.
Lab values to check for Cardiovascular Disease (CVD)
While we previously discussed some of the labs that are commonly used to assess heart disease (Total Cholesterol, LDL and HDL), there are other levels that may be helpful to assess as well, depending on your individual needs. Measurements such as triglycerides, C-reactive protein (CRP), Lipoprotein(a), and Homocysteine levels can also help determine your risk for CVD (3).
3 Nutrition Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Heart
There are many ways to incorporate a healthy lifestyle in order to prevent and potentially reverse heart disease. Listed below are a few ideas.
1 – Incorporating a Wide Variety of Nutrients
Consuming a wide variety of nutrients can be beneficial to your overall health. Specifically, macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats provide energy and certain key nutrients. Micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals are a key player in keeping ourselves nourished and healthy as well. Other nutrients such as fiber can help decrease cholesterol levels.
2 – Physical Activity
According to The American Heart Association, aiming for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity can lower your risk of heart disease (4). Incorporating physical activity into your lifestyle increases HDL levels and therefore flushing out LDL cholesterol from your body.
3 – Relax
Adapting to certain stress-relieving exercises such as mediation and yoga can also be beneficial for maintaining a healthy heart. Below is a sample dinner that is both nutrient-dense and satiating!
Sample Dinner (Heart Healthy)
5-6 oz. Salmon (seasoned with garlic, olive oil and lemon)
2/3 cup of cooked quinoa
1 cup of roasted mixed vegetables
*consider adding 1/4 cup of (unsalted) mixed nuts for an extra crunch!
If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out! Until next time!
Rebecca Goodrich MS, RDN, LDN
- National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention. November 25, 2013. https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/cholesterol_education_month.htm#:~:text=How%20many%20Americans%20have%20high,high%20risk%20for%20heart%20disease.
- Cox RA, García-Palmieri MR. Cholesterol, Triglycerides, and Associated Lipoproteins. In: Walker HK, Hall WD, Hurst JW, editors. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. 3rd edition. Boston: Butterworths; 1990. Chapter 31. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK351
- Wallace, M., Ricco, J., and Barrett, B. Screening Strategies for Cardiovascular Disease in Asymptomatic Adults. 2014;41(2):371-397
- American Heart Association. The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations 2020 update. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/aha-diet-and-lifestyle-recommendations#:~:text=Eat%20an%20overall%20healthy%20dietary,skinless%20poultry%20and%20fish