High cholesterol – do you know your risk?
Cholesterol gets a lot of negative press, but your body actually needs a certain amount of it to be healthy. Your body uses the fat-like substance to make things like hormones and vitamin D.
Your body gets cholesterol from two sources:
- Diet: many animal products like meat, eggs, and full fat dairy contain cholesterol.
- Itself: Your body (primarily your liver) can make all the cholesterol it needs.
Having too much cholesterol (high cholesterol) can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease. Two types of cholesterol are of particular importance to understanding cardiovascular risk: HDL (“good cholesterol”) and LDL (“bad cholesterol”).
- High density lipoprotein (HDL) is often referred to as ‘good cholesterol’ because it transports cholesterol to your liver, which helps remove it from your body.
- Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is often referred to as ‘bad cholesterol’ because it can buildup in your arteries if you have too much of it.
Having too much LDL, or not enough HDL can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease caused by buildup of cholesterol in your arteries (coronary artery disease). People with coronary artery disease are at higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Triglycerides are another type of fat in your body. If you consume more calories than you need, your body stores the excess energy as triglycerides; elevated triglycerides also contribute to cardiovascular risk.
What contributes to high cholesterol?
- Excess dietary intake of saturated fat and/or trans fats: eating a diet high in saturated fat and/or trans fat stimulates your liver to produce more cholesterol and can lead to high cholesterol.
- Sedentary lifestyle: not getting enough exercise increases your risk for high cholesterol, low HDL, and can contribute to being overweight.
- Smoking: tobacco use increases risk for high cholesterol.
- Being overweight, drinking too much alcohol, and eating a high carbohydrate diet can lead to elevated triglycerides.
- If your parents and/or siblings have high cholesterol, you may be at increased risk for high cholesterol.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help reduce your risk for high cholesterol, and can help lower your cholesterol if it is already high:
- Try to get at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise most days
- Eat a healthy diet low in saturated fats and trans fats
- Avoid tobacco use
- Maintain a healthy body weight
- Drink alcohol only in moderation
- Include healthy fats (like omega 3 fatty acids) in your diet
If you have a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol, lifestyle changes are still an important way to reduce your cardiovascular risk, but may not be enough.