Friends, I'd like to talk today about cholesterol.  Whether or not you are currently at risk of high cholesterol, this can be an important article for you, as it relates to your long term health.

What is it?
Cholesterol is a molecule produced in your body that is found in every cell.  A "sterol" is a sub group of steroids, cholesterol being the most important of this group as it is in every cell of the body, and helps build hormones and manufacture vitamin D.  Therefore, without cholesterol, you wouldn't be alive!

Where does it come from?
Most of the cholesterol in your body is formed from within (experts say it is primarily manufactured in the liver).  However, a portion of your body's cholesterol comes from the foods you eat.

What factors affect cholesterol levels?
Genetics are perhaps the number one factor.  If you have a family history of high cholesterol, you may have to work hard your whole life to keep your levels down.  Males tend to have higher cholesterol than women.  Regarding age, there tends to be a correlation of higher cholesterol with higher age; for women often menopause plays a factor in increasing cholesterol.  Nutrition is another big player in your cholesterol levels.  The one thing you CAN control is the food you eat, so for some of us, it's all you got going for you!

Can you explain total cholesterol, LDLs, HDLs, and triglycerides?
LDL (low density lipoprotein): "Bad cholesterol."  Can lead to build up of plaque in arteries, a pathway to heart and circulatory disease. Desired level: less than 100 mg/dL

HDL (high density lipoprotein): "Good cholesterol." Helps transport LDL away, to lower risk of plaque. Desired level: more than 60 mg/dL

Total Cholesterol: in any lipid blood test you will get this number. It is the HDL + LDL, plus any additional including what some call a third category of "VLDL" (very low density liporpotein).  Desired level: less than 200 mg/dL

Triglycerides: Though similar, these are the more general lipids that are in your bloodstream. There is probably a correlation between triglyercide level and HDL/LDL ratio.  Desired level: less than 150 mg/dL

What is "dietary cholesterol?"
Since we humans eat animal products, animal foods (meat, poultry, eggs) have a certain amount of cholesterol that we may ingest daily.  Eggs over the years have been put into a category of being "unhealthy" because of the high amount of dietary cholesterol in yolks.  The truth is, more and more research is coming in saying dietary cholesterol does not have a major effect on your personal cholesterol level.  Perhaps this is because when we ingest cholesterol, it contributes to both HDL and LDL cholesterol in our body, so the ratio stays about the same.  The RDA for cholesterol is under 300 mg, but eating two egg yolks puts you over 100% of the RDA.  Though this might seem troublesome, the new conventional wisdom is that saturated fat is a much worse culprit for raising your personal cholesterol level than ingestion of dietary cholesterol.  Though eggs are an excellent source of protein, you still might want to keep it to only 2 egg yolks per day, or simply eat egg whites.

What foods should be avoided to control cholesterol?
As I referred to, foods high in saturated fats and trans fats are perhaps the biggest culprits for raising cholesterol.  Saturated fat is typically a fat that is solid at room temperature.  Most animal fat, including milk fat, is saturated and should be eaten in limited quantities.  Choosing fish, white meat poultry, and lean pork over red meat and fatty pork cuts is a great start.  Limiting dairy, particularly cream, butter, cheese, and whole milk is another good choice.

Trans fats are manufactured by taking an unsaturated fat and bombarding it with hydrogen atoms, thus forming a hydrogenated, or partially-hydrogenated oil, which becomes solid at room temperature.  Margarine was the first trans fat manufactured by the food industry, and was marketed as being healthier than butter since it had less total fat and less saturated fat.  As it turns out these "trans fats" created by the hydrogen atoms are even worse for you than saturated fat, particularly in reducing of HDL/LDL ratio. There seems to be a direct correlation between trans fat ingestion and rise of LDL levels, as well as reduction of HDL levels! Yikes!

Also, realize that your body fat percentage has a good deal to do with your triglyceride and cholesterol level in general.  While sugary foods are often devoid of fat, eating lots of simple carbs and sugar will cause you to gain more weight as fat, which in turn can raise your cholesterol levels. Sugary diets are perhaps even WORSE than high fat diets for your cholesterol levels since they have a more direct correlation to weight gain and increase of body fat.

What foods might help reduce cholesterol?
Foods with soluble fiber have been identified as being beneficial at controlling your cholesterol level.  Oatmeal is a great choice.  One thing to be careful for is boxed cereals that say "heart healthy" on them.  The FDA will call something heart healthy if it has a couple grams of fiber and is low fat/low saturated fat. As mentioned above, this does not account for sugar levels, and most cereals are high in sugar, at least in terms of % of calories from sugar.

Foods with healthy fats may also lower cholesterol, particularly omega-3 rich foods like salmon, walnuts, and flax seeds.

As you might expect, fruits and vegetables play a part in lowering cholesterol as well, due to high fiber content, low calorie content, and high density of phytochemicals, which often have anti-inflammatory properties.

What about exercise?
Absolutely yes! Not only does exercise lower body fat, it makes your body be happy.  By increasing oxygen consumption and increasing blood flow to muscles, exercise helps your body increase function in almost every way.  If you lift weights, you also increase your "vascularity" by expanding blood vessels as muscles grow, which might reduce risk of heart disease.  The more muscle and less fat on your body, the better!  You can't "grow" muscle by eating right, this is why exercise is important in addition to diet!

What about statins and cholesterol medication?
Medication should be a last resort, at the recommendation of your doctor.  Statins inhibit enzymes in the liver which create cholesterol.  Try changing your lifestyle first, but if your genetics are outweighing your lifestyle, perhaps you should talk to your doctor.  Complaints from some users of statins, such as Lipitor, are increased muscle cramping, which might affect your ability to exercise efficiently, though this doesn't occur in all patients.

When should I start testing my blood for lipids?
In my mind, it's never too early.  Even if you are in your 20s, if you have a cholesterol problem, it's better to know now than find out when you are 40 and your risk of heart disease is increased.

I hope you find this helpful everybody!!