Cholesterol is one of those common blood tests that many people don’t really understand. You may have heard that there’s “good” and “bad” cholesterol, or your doctor may have told you to watch your diet and work on lowering your cholesterol. It can all be confusing.
At Heart & Vascular Institute, our providers regularly discuss the link between cholesterol, diet, and heart health with patients, and find most of them have questions. So much information about nutrition is available, but not all of it is clear — or trustworthy.
Here, we talk about what cholesterol means, how your diet can affect your cholesterol levels, and how high cholesterol is related to heart disease.
Cholesterol is a naturally occurring substance in your blood that’s similar to fat. Cholesterol is contained in two types of proteins: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). HDL is sometimes called “good” cholesterol, and LDL is called “bad” cholesterol.
HDL travels through your blood, picks up cholesterol, and takes it to your liver for disposal. LDL, however, can cling to the walls of your arteries, clogging and damaging your blood vessels.
When you have a blood test to measure your cholesterol, the results tell the levels of HDL, LDL, and a third substance called triglycerides. People with low HDL combined with high levels of LDL and triglycerides have an elevated risk of heart disease.
Researchers have found that what you eat can influence your cholesterol levels, but it’s important to note that your body makes cholesterol. So some people may be more disposed to high cholesterol because their bodies make more of it, regardless of diet.
Still, eating a healthy, varied diet with a mind to lowering your cholesterol is a good choice.
The foods most closely associated with high cholesterol include trans fats and saturated fats. Trans fats tend to raise your levels of LDL and lower your levels of HDL.
Partially hydrogenated oils are the main source of trans fats in a typical diet. They offer no nutritional value and are found in many types of packaged foods.
In 2018, the FDA found that partially hydrogenated oils are unsafe for human consumption, and companies began phasing them out. However, it’s good to check labels and avoid foods with partially hydrogenated oils, or PHOs, listed as an ingredient.
Saturated fats are found in red meat, fried foods, sweets like cookies and cakes, and whole dairy products such as full-fat milk and cream cheese. It’s a good idea to limit consumption of these foods.
Happily, some foods help lower LDL and raise HDL. For example, oats, whole grains, and legumes are excellent options. Fatty fish like salmon or mackerel, citrus fruits, and vegetables like okra and eggplant are also good choices.
Olive oil is a healthy fat and may help you manage your cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol is only one indicator of your overall risk of developing heart disease, though it’s an important one. From age 20 on, you should have your cholesterol tested regularly and make dietary changes as necessary.
You should also talk to a cardiologist about other indicators of your heart health. Depending on many factors, such as your family history and personal medical history along with your cholesterol levels, your doctor may have specific recommendations for you.
To learn more about your heart health and cholesterol levels, make an appointment today at one of Heart & Vascular Institute’s three convenient locations, in Dearborn, Detroit, and Southfield, Michigan.