Don’t panic. As soon as you find out you have high cholesterol, known medically as hypercholesterolemia, you’ll probably be made aware of the health problems and risks it can be associated with. However, it’s important to understand that hypercholesterolemia is perfectly manageable, and often only requires some lifestyle changes that will ultimately help you live healthier and longer.
People with a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol are at a greater risk of heart disease and should consider taking steps even before they are diagnosed with hypercholesterolemia. For those who have familial hypercholesterolemia (inherited high cholesterol), it’s necessary to use medication to combat high cholesterol. This is why it’s important to seek advice from a physician if you are worried about your cholesterol levels.
LDL and HDL – what’s the difference?
The key to managing your cholesterol levels is maintaining balance. Your body needs cholesterol to function adequately. It is important to understand that cholesterol comes from two sources: your body and the food you eat. There are two kinds of cholesterol: high density lipoprotein (HDL), which is the “good” cholesterol; and low density lipoprotein (LDL) which is the “bad” cholesterol.
The reality is that your body needs both to function properly, but it’s just so much easier to get LDL. Almost universally, high cholesterol problems are caused when people have too much LDL and not enough HDL. Your body naturally tries to keep them balanced, but there is a lot you can do with your eating habits that can help. As a rule of thumb, the higher your HDL-cholesterol is, the lower your risk of heart disease and the higher your LDL-cholesterol, the higher your risk of cardiovascular problems. So remember it this way: HDL-cholesterol should ideally be High and LDL-cholesterol should ideally be Low.
Healthy food has a terrible PR department; just thinking of the phrase “healthy food” gives us the idea of less than tasty meals. However, correcting your cholesterol balance doesn’t necessarily mean you need to sacrifice your favorite foods; it just means being clever about your ingredients.
Start simply by substituting foods high in trans and saturated fats (which contribute to LDL) with ingredients high in monounsaturated fats. For example, when a recipe calls for lard or butter, substitute with vegetable oil. Look at the ingredients of your favorite foods, especially baked goods such as cookies and cakes, to identify which have trans fats and prefer versions that are trans fat free.
The Mayo Clinic recommends consuming foods that are high in Omega-3, which help reduce your cholesterol levels. These are fish, especially salmon; and nuts like almonds, walnuts and peanuts. You can also take fish oil supplements to get some of the same benefits.
Avoid Risk Factors
The American Heart Association lists four avoidable risk factors that can raise your cholesterol, as well as making a case of familial hypercholesterolemia harder to manage. Smoking, whether as an active or passive smoker, has been associated with a higher risk of high cholesterol. Obesity, lack of exercise and poor diet combine to reinforce high cholesterol levels.
Other risk factors include chronic high blood pressure and diabetes. It’s important to understand that while obesity is associated with higher cholesterol, it’s perfectly possible for thin people to have cholesterol problems as well. Another reoccurring myth is that it’s a “man’s” problem; women are also at risk of developing hypercholesterolemia and suffering its consequences.
Before making lifestyle changes that will affect your health, always consider talking with your physician first. While it is perfectly manageable, people who have familial hypercholesterolemia often need medication to manage their condition.