Along with high blood pressure, obesity and poor lifestyle habits, unhealthy cholesterol is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease. But you can take steps to keep your cholesterol levels in check.
Cholesterol—you've heard the word. And you're likely aware that cholesterol (a fatlike substance in your bloodstream) plays a leading role in heart health.
You may even know that it's important to be aware of your cholesterol levels. But are you giving your cholesterol levels the attention they deserve?
Here are three reasons why you should do that, with information from the American Heart Association (AHA) the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other experts.
1. Cholesterol can hurt your heart—and help keep it healthy.
One type of cholesterol—low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol—can be harmful. That's why it's often called the "bad" cholesterol. Higher levels can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease. So lower LDL levels are better for your heart.
But there's also a good form of cholesterol. It's known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and it helps move cholesterol to the liver, where it's removed from the body. The higher your HDL level, the lower your risk of heart disease.
In other words, both types of cholesterol matter to your heart's health. For this reason, it's important to know about more than just your total cholesterol level when you get a cholesterol test.
2. Unhealthy cholesterol levels don't cause symptoms.
With some health concerns, you'll experience warning signs of a problem. Not so with cholesterol. The only way to know if your levels are in a healthy range is to have your healthcare provider do a simple blood test that measures cholesterol.
What's more, you can't count on cholesterol becoming a problem only in your later years. In fact, it's a good idea to be aware of cholesterol levels early in life so you can take steps to control them and reduce your risk for heart disease later on.
To know where you stand, have your cholesterol checked at least every four to six years. It's best to have a test called a lipid profile. This test measures more than just your total cholesterol. The results will also show your LDL and HDL cholesterol levels, as well as your triglycerides (another important blood fat).
Here's one more thing to be aware of if you're a parent or other child caregiver: Due to the growing epidemic of obesity in kids, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children between 9 and 11 years old also have their cholesterol levels tested.
3. Cholesterol is controllable.
There's much you can do to help keep your bad cholesterol levels low and your good cholesterol levels high.
While medication may sometimes be needed, lifestyle changes can often have a big impact on cholesterol.
Eating right is essential. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs to be healthy—it's typically your diet that leads to trouble.
You can help improve your cholesterol levels by:
- Decreasing your intake of saturated and trans fats.
- Increasing your intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Saturated fats are found in foods like fatty meats, full-fat dairy products and tropical oils. Switching to low-fat or nonfat dairy is one simple way to cut back on this type of fat. Also, try cooking with a little bit of unsaturated fat (such as olive or canola oil) instead of butter.
Trans fats are often found in stick margarines and some desserts. Try to avoid trans fats whenever you can.
Ask your provider what else you can do to reach your cholesterol level goals.