Cholesterol is one of the lipids (fats) in the bloodstream, also found in your body’s cells. It is used by the body to build cell membranes and some hormones. At high level, commonly called hypercholesterolemia, cholesterol is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease and eventual heart attack.
The reason cholesterol is a major risk factor to our health is it cannot dissolve in the blood and has to be transported to and from the cells by carriers called lipoproteins. These are of several kinds, but the two main ones are: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
Low-density lipoprotein is the predominant cholesterol carrier in the body. It carries cholesterol to the cells. High level of LDL cholesterol in the blood can slowly cause a buildup of plaque in the walls of the arteries supplying blood to the heart and brain, a condition called atherosclerosis.
As a result, the reduced speed of blood flow in the arteries will allow clot (thrombus) to form near the plaque and block the flow of blood to the heart muscle and cause a heart attach, or block the flow of blood to the brain and cause a stroke.
A high level of LDL cholesterol of 160 mg/dL and above increases the risk of heart disease. If you have a history of heart disease, your LDL cholesterol should be below 100 mg/dL, which is why LDL is called a bad cholesterol. Lower level of LDL indicates a lower risk of heart attack.
High-density lipoprotein transports about one third of cholesterol in the body. The good news about HDL is it carries cholesterol away from the arteries back to the liver, where it is removed from the body. In the view of some medical experts, HDL removes excess cholesterol from plaque buildup in the arteries and slows down their growth.
For this reason HDL is called the good cholesterol because high level of HDL in the blood seems to protect against heart attack. A low level of HDL (less than 40 mg/dL in men, and less than 50 mg/dL in women) reflects a greater risk of heart disease, as well as a greater risk of stroke.
Good sources of HDL include: onions, omega-3 acids and soluble fibers like whole grains, brown rice, oats, oat bran; fruits such as citrus fruit, grapes, apples, as well as legumes and lentils. Cooking oils such as canola and olive oil are high in monounsaturated fats and good sources of HDL.
There are two ways we get cholesterol. The liver produces about 1,000 milligrams of cholesterol a day. We also get cholesterol from animal foods sources such as egg york, meat, poultry, shellfish and whole and reduced-fat-milk and dairy products.
Under normal conditions, the body produces all the cholesterol it needs, so you don’t need to consume it, yet statistics show that the average American man consumes about 337 milligrams of cholesterol a day, and the average woman consumes about 217 milligrams.
Since the body typically does not need cholesterol from animal foods sources, the American Heart Association recommends that you limit your dietary intake of saturated and trans fats to less than 300 milligrams a day. For people with heart disease, it is recommended that their cholesterol intake be less than 200 milligrams a day.
It is critical, therefore, to know how many milligrams of dietary cholesterol you consume a day, as consuming consistently over 300 milligrams a day could more likely than not cause a buildup of plaque in your arteries and lead to heart disease, or stroke.
While some of the excess dietary cholesterol is removed from the body by the liver, more remains. It is recommended that you do regular moderate to vigorous physical activities like brisk walking, jogging and swimming, as these can help control weight, diabetes, high blood pressure, reduce dietary cholesterol level, and increase HDL, the good cholesterol in the blood, and lower the risk of heart disease.
Remember it is always important to consult your doctor before attempting to reduce your dietary cholesterol consumption, as you need a certain amount of cholesterol in your blood, and your doctor is the one best able to provide that information.