Earlier this week, a family member, who had recently undergone a physical, called asking for advice about his cholesterol levels. He specifically wanted to know how he could raise his HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which was a bit lower than desirable.
While my relative's request seems basic, it underscores for me just how confused consumers still are by the information they get about how to manage their cholesterol levels.
Let's start at the beginning. Cholesterol is a substance in the blood that is formed as a result of fat consumption. Cholesterol, in the form of plaque, accumulates in the walls of arteries, narrowing or blocking them.
This narrowing not only makes the heart work harder to pump blood but it also opens the possibility that pieces of plaque will break off into the blood stream and cause a heart attack or stroke.
When you get your blood work back after a physical, you'll see different values for the various kinds of cholesterol detected by the lab tests. Here's how to decipher the information:
- Total cholesterol is a combined measure of two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, and low-density lipoprotein, or LDL. You've probably heard that the sum of these two types of cholesterol should add up to no more than 200 mg/dL.
- HDL, or "good cholesterol," helps prevent fatty plaque in the arteries, so the higher your level the better. The desired ranges for HDL are above 40 mg/dL for men and above 50 mg/dL for women.
- LDL, or "bad cholesterol," is the main kind of cholesterol in the blood and is the type of cholesterol that clogs arteries. This is usually the blood value that is most indicative of a person's chances of heart disease. Desirable LDL levels are less than 100 mg/dL.
- Triglyceride (TG) is a type of dietary fat that is incompletely broken down by the liver. Aim for a triglyceride level below 100 mg/dL.
Doctors usually recommend that patients try to lower their cholesterol levels through lifestyle measures before taking medications. Here are some tips to help you maintain your blood cholesterol levels within the desirable ranges:
- Keep total fat intake less than 30 percent of total calories and saturated fat less than 7 percent of total calories
- Consume 20-30 grams of fiber per day
- Engage in moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week
- Maintain a healthy body weight