Cholesterol may get a bad rap when it comes to heart health, but in reality, it’s just one of many substances created by the body to help it function. “Our body manufactures cholesterol, a waxy substance that is absolutely essential for nearly all organ systems to function properly,” says Rebecca Solomon, a registered dietitian and the Director of Clinical Nutrition at Mount Sinai Beth Israel. It is an organic molecule that builds and maintains cell membrane structure, and is vital to its function.
Although cholesterol is also found in food, it’s not the culprit for poor heart health. “Dietary cholesterol has much less effect, if any, on our cholesterol levels than the saturated fat and trans fat content of food does,” Solomon says. In the body, the liver produces and circulates cholesterol into the bloodstream — and the more saturated fats and trans fats a person eats, the more cholesterol their liver will produce.
Good vs. bad cholesterol
Cholesterol is transported through the bloodstream by two kinds of carriers called lipoproteins: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL), whose levels are measured by a number. These two numbers, along with triglyceride levels, make up a total cholesterol count, which is determined through a simple blood test. HDL is often called “good” cholesterol, and LDL is considered “bad,” as it contributes to plaque buildup and artery hardening that leads to a condition called atherosclerosis. That arterial plaque can also break open, causing blood clots that could result in strokes and heart attacks.
A total cholesterol score is determined by adding HDL, LDL and 20% of your triglyceride number. Scoring more than 180mg/dL can put you in the high cholesterol range.
Eat to decrease bad cholesterol
One of the best ways people can lower their cholesterol scores is to adopt a healthy diet and avoid foods high in saturated fats and trans fats, Solomon says. Foods to limit or avoid include:
- Full-fat dairy products like cheese and ice cream
- Fatty meats and poultry with skin
- Butter and lard
- Deep-fried and processed foods and snacks
Fortunately, there are foods you can eat more of to help lower your cholesterol. These include:
- Oatmeal and oat bran
- Fatty fish, which contain omega-3 fatty acids
- Walnuts, almonds and other nuts (in small portions)
- Olive oil, especially extra virgin
Quitting smoking carries a host of benefits, including improving HDL cholesterol levels. If you choose to drink alcohol, drink in moderation — no more than one or two drinks per day. Exercising regularly (three to five days per week) and maintaining a healthy weight can also positively impact your cholesterol levels — and your health in general, Solomon says.
To make an appointment with a registered dietitian, call 1-855-411-LWNY (5969) or visit the Mount Sinai Beth Israel website.