We’ve all heard of the evils of cholesterol; the waxy substance clogs our arteries over the years, leading to obstruction of blood flow and subsequent heart attacks! When you have your blood drawn to measure your cholesterol level you can either get a ‘total cholesterol’ reading–which only lets you know if your level is too high–or you can have the level differentiate between the ‘good cholesterol’ and the ‘bad cholesterol’. It is recommended that your total cholesterol be maintained under 200 mg/dl, but that alone is not an indicator of low risk for heart disease. Finding out how much ‘good’ or ‘bad’ cholesterol is what you need to know.
Our bodies carry cholesterol though the bloodstream in different packages called lipoproteins (a combination of fats and proteins). Some packages are made up mostly of fat and have a small protein content. They are often found carrying the fat and cholesterol we have recently eaten around our body, depositing a little cholesterol here and there, contributing to the dreaded artery clogging. These packages are called “bad cholesterol” and are scientifically known as LDL, for ‘low-density lipoproteins’. They are low density because they have more fat than protein. Visualize a person with a high amount of body fat: they float easily in a swimming pool because their body density is low. Most doctors like to see the LDL level below 120 mg/dl.
So what is “good cholesterol”? Another type of protein measured in your blood test is called HDL, or high-density lipoproteins. These have more protein and less fat, so they are more dense. Picture a muscular person in a swimming pool who will sink to the bottom unless they are struggling to stay afloat. The function of HDL’s is to travel around the body picking up fat from the arteries and taking it back to the liver where it can be repackaged for other uses. Therefore, the more HDL’s a person has, the more fatty substances are being eliminated from their blood vessels on a continuous basis: this is the ‘good’ cholesterol. Levels of these in your blood are better when they are higher. Even if your total cholesterol is over 200 mg/dl, it might not be a bad thing if your HDL’s happen to be 80 and your LDL’s are below 100 mg/dl. Other types of cholesterol packages are also present, so the sum of the HDL plus the LDL will not be equal to the total cholesterol measurement.
Now the real question becomes, “How can I get more good cholesterol in my body,” and the first thing people want to know is what foods contain HDL’s. The bad news is, HDL’s are not found in food. Remember, HDL is the way our bodies package a combination of fats and proteins. When you eat food that contains cholesterol and saturated fats, your body will package them according to your individual metabolism, genetics, and other factors, including how much fat you currently have in your body. Eating a diet that is lower in fat in cholesterol is likely to lower your LDL level (your bad cholesterol). But there aren’t foods to eat that will raise your HDL’s. You can raise your HDL’s with exercise, by quitting smoking if you smoke, and in some cases by drinking a glass of red wine occasionally. It’s important to note that more wine does not promote further elevation of HDL’s!
So if you have high HDL levels (that’s good!) you likely have your genetics and your exercise habits to thank. If your LDL’s are too high, that’s bad: Consider trying a diet lower in fat, particularly in saturated fats (those found in animal products and tropical oils). Some types of fiber also help lower the bad cholesterol, like oat bran and even metamucil. Contact your health care professional for further information. Start off by getting tested so you know your numbers!
Laurie Beebe is a registered dietitian with over 25 years of experience. She assists people from all walks of life in changing their diet for better health. Certified in Adult Weight Management, Laurie has transitioned into life coaching to better implement changes in people’s environments. No matter how much people know about what they ‘should’ be doing differently, they don’t alter their habits without making adjustments in their surroundings and their awareness. Coaching helps lead people to permanent changes by helping them set their own goals and design their own action plans. Please visit Laurie’s website for more free nutrition tips, a free monthly newsletter, or more information on coaching, at www.mycoachlaurie.com.