Cholesterol levels are determined via routine blood tests and can indicate your risk for cardiovascular (heart) disease. Age, male sex (up until menopause in women) and family history are risk factors for high cholesterol levels.
When your doctor says you have ‘high cholesterol’ what he/she likely means is that you have high levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) which are considered to be ‘bad cholesterols’ and low levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) which are protective against cardiovascular (heart) disease and considered ‘good cholesterols’.
The Function of LDLs and HDLs
The categorization of cholesterol into good and bad types can be misleading since LDL actually has important functions in the body. LDLs are synthesized (created) in the liver and consumed from food sources. They act as a vehicle to transport cholesterol to cells where it is used as an important part of the cell’s structure and helps with the synthesis of vitamin D and hormones. The problem is when there is there is too much LDL in the body since it is believed that excess LDLs will contribute to the development of plaques and cardiovascular disease.
HDL has the title of ‘good cholesterol’ because it responsible for bringing cholesterol back to the liver where it is recycled, thus keeping cholesterol out of the blood vessels.
Management of Cholesterol Levels
Elevated LDL levels can be due to a high-fat diet (although not all ‘fatty’ foods are LDL-rich), genetic factors, conditions such as type 2 diabetes and the use of some medications.
LDLs are found in food sources such as fatty and red meats, coconut oils, egg yolk and butter and reduced consumption of these foods may improve LDL levels. However, since the liver also synthesizes LDLs, medications which decrease liver output may be required if diet modification does not alter LDL levels. Smoking also contributes to both elevated LDL levels and cardiovascular disease.
The consumption of foods such as fish and nuts (such as almonds, cashews and walnuts) can help increase HDL levels. Olive oil is also a good source of HDLs and can be used in place of LDL-rich oils such as palm and coconut oil, or even butter.
Aerobic exercises such as walking, jogging or swimming has also been found to improve HDL levels.