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People can improve their cholesterol levels by consuming less saturated fats, found in meats, butter and other items, and eating more low-fat and high-fiber foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

September is National Cholesterol Education month. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 102 million American adults over the age of 20 have a total cholesterol at or above 200 mg/dl (milligrams per deciliter) which is above the recommended levels. Over 35 million of these adults have levels of 240 mg/dl or higher, which puts them at risk for heart disease. Having high cholesterol numbers is not limited to adults. The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that more than one-fifth of American children, ages 12-19, have at least one high cholesterol number. Children as young as two years old that are overweight or obese and have a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease, it’s recommended that cholesterol levels are checked early.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is lipid or fatty substance found in many foods we eat, especially animal products. Cholesterol is also made in the body. Some cholesterol is necessary to build cells, make hormones, and produce bile acids which digest fat. However, too much cholesterol can build up in the arteries, forming plaque and increasing the risk for heart disease, which is currently the leading cause of death in the U.S.

What do the numbers mean?

Your total cholesterol number measures different types of cholesterol such as LDL (low-density lipoprotein), HDL (high-density lipoprotein), and triglycerides. LDL’s are the “bad cholesterol” because they form plaque in the arteries and increase the risk for developing heart disease. HDL’s are the “good cholesterol” since they remove the bad cholesterol from blood and prevent plaque from building up. Triglycerides are a type of fat and are also considered “bad.” Triglycerides are formed from excess calories you consume that the body doesn’t need.

This chart shows the best cholesterol levels for adults, however follow guidelines from your healthcare provider since levels may vary based upon, gender, age and family history.

Desirable Cholesterol Levels:

  • Total cholesterol less than 170 mg/dL
  • Low LDL (“bad”) cholesterol less than 110 mg/dL
  • High HDL (“good”) cholesterol 35 mg/dL or higher
  • Triglycerides less than 150 mg/dL

How often should cholesterol levels be checked?

Cholesterol levels can be measured by a simple blood test. The National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) recommends adults, 20 years or older check their cholesterol every five years. If you have other health conditions or risk factors, your healthcare provider may require cholesterol testing more frequently. For example, you may need more frequent cholesterol testing if you:

  • Have a family history of high cholesterol or heart attacks
  • Are overweight
  • Are physically inactive
  • Have diabetes
  • Eat an unhealthy diet
  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Are a man older than 45 or a woman older than 55

It’s important to test cholesterol levels since there are generally no symptoms if cholesterol levels are high.

What can you do to lower your cholesterol numbers?

The key to lowering cholesterol numbers is to focus on these four lifestyle changes.

  1. Physical activity can improve cholesterol numbers by increasing HDLs and lowering triglyceride levels. For adults, getting at least 150 minutes of moderate activity a week could improve these cholesterol numbers. Youth, ages 6-17, should be moderately active 60 minutes or more each day.
  2. Diet plays an important role in improving cholesterol levels. Consume less saturated fats, by limiting animal products like meats, regular milk, butter and eggs. Reduce trans fats intake by eating less bakery products and crackers. Lower triglyceride numbers by decreasing sweets and alcohol consumption. Eat more low-fat and high fiber foods, like fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and whole grains. Consuming foods that contain oat bran, like oatmeal have been proven to lower LDLs.
  3. Maintaining a healthy weight or losing weight can lower LDLs and triglycerides and increase HDLs. Losing as little as 10 percent of excess weight (that’s 20 pounds for a 200 pound person), can improve cholesterol numbers.
  4. Don’t smoke! If you currently smoke-quit. Quitting smoking can lower cholesterol levels and help protect your arteries.

For more information, check out the AHA website (https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/prevention-and-treatment-of-high-cholesterol-hyperlipidemia) and the CDC website (https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/cholesterol_education_month.htm#references). Both sites offer a number of free programs and resources to help you get started in improving your cholesterol numbers.

For more information, contact: Beverly Jackey, MS, RDN, Family and Consumer Sciences Educator at the University of Maryland Extension, 200 Chesapeake Blvd. in Elkton, at 410-996-8133 and bjackey@umd.edu.

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