The good (HDL). The bad (LDL). What’s too high? Can it be too low? When should we worry? What does it all mean?? AHHH!! There is a ton of information out there about this topic so where to even begin? Well let’s start with why I am writing this post in the first place. I never thought too much about this particular topic until I got my lab results back from my physical at the end of last year to be honest. My doctor called and said all looked good…except for my cholesterol levels which came back at 200. Apparently, that’s borderline high. I was a bit surprised because I had been making such a huge effort to eat better and exercise consistently for many months at that point, but it wasn’t a total shock.
A little back history on me, I had high cholesterol when I was a young kid (like 6, 7 years oldish). It wasn’t because I had a bad diet. Quite the opposite. My parents made sure we ate healthy, well-balanced meals each day. We very rarely got fast food. My mom sent us to school with thoughtfully planned out homemade, bagged lunches. And we only got to drink soda on special occasions. Along with a good diet, I was SUPER active as a child. I played outside every chance I got and signed up for every sports team I could fit into my little schedule. So diet and exercise aside, my high cholesterol as a young child and quite possibly today as well is most likely the result of plain ole genetics. Sometimes no matter what you do and how healthy you try to be, your body just has other ideas. So I figured I should try to educate myself as much as possible about the topic in hopes there may still be things I could do to help lower my levels naturally. Here’s what I learned in the process…
Lets’ start with what the heck cholesterol even is?? Honestly, I didn’t really know. In doing some research I found out that cholesterol is a fatty substance our bodies make because it actually needs it to function! Apparently, cholesterol serves 3 main purposes in our bodies:
- Helps produce bile in the liver
- Helps produce hormones (more specifically our sex hormones)
- And is even one of the building blocks of our tissues
Who knew we actually needed cholesterol, right? Along with our bodies naturally producing it, cholesterol is also found in a lot of the food we eat. The catch (there always is at least one) is we need some, but not too much. The problem when we get too much becomes our body starts storing it in really inconvenient and dangerous places like our arteries and walls of our blood vessels. With too much cholesterol, these passageways become blocked and then potentially deadly strokes and heart attacks happen. Things we would all like to avoid experiencing I am guessing!
To further wrap my head around this pretty complex topic I wanted to understand what good and bad cholesterol is as well. Let’s start with the bad and get that over with:
- LDL: Which stands for Low-Density Lipoprotein- This is the stuff that settles into your arteries and hardens causing plaque to form. This plaque can either end up clogging your arteries altogether or breaking off and causing blood clots, both of which can lead to heart attack and stroke. Ideally you want to keep this number low…like under 100 mg/dL low.
- HDL: Which stands for High-Density Lipoprotein –This is the friendly, helpful cholesterol which you want to keep at a level of about 60 mg/dL or above. HDL aids in moving the bad stuff (LDL) though you body to your liver where it can be broken down and eliminated. If your HDL levels drop below 40 md/dL though that can be trouble as well. Low HDL levels can put you at risk for heart disease the same way high LDL levels do. Whew, a lot of numbers to keep straight…but important ones to be aware of!
Having now found out what cholesterol actually is, what the good and bad kinds are and then what numbers we should be shooting for to stay healthy, I wanted to take it a step further and look into how I could possibly control my borderline levels without having to resort to medication. Time to insert that all important disclaimer….this is my preference. I personally want to avoid being on any kind of prescribed drugs if I can possibly help it. Mostly this is due to all the crazy side effects that come along with so many pharmaceuticals these days. I totally understand though that sometimes it can’t be avoided. My mom and dad for instance are both on cholesterol lowering drugs and my mom is also on blood pressure medication. They are extremely active, very careful about what they eat and not overweight in the slightest but just can’t seem to regulate those things without the help of a few prescriptions. So I realize at some point I may not have a choice but to go on something, but I will at least go down fighting having done everything I possibly could to avoid it. Ok, disclaimer over…
In wanting to do what I can to naturally lower or at least not raise my cholesterol any further, I of course began looking into how to amend my diet to work to my bodies advantage. There are certain foods out there that are high in cholesterol which you obviously want to avoid if you are concerned about your levels but there are also foods out there that can actually aid in lowering your cholesterol. So lets take a look at a few from both categories.
Food that are high in cholesterol include:
- Processed Meats – ex.Hot Dogs, Sausage, Bacon (sorry bacon lovers out there)
- Butter & Margarine – Margarine especially is loaded with cholesterol because it I made from unsaturated vegetable oil
- Shellfish – This one was tough for me became I love shrimp and was eating a lot of it. I have decreased my intake now to only once or twice a month
- Red Meat – I cut this out of my diet completely in favor of more plant-protein but just limiting it also goes a long way in helping with cholesterol levels
- Eggs – The yolks in particular are high in cholesterol but eggs are very nutritious otherwise. The Mayo clinic says 4 or less eggs a week is the recommended amount to reap the health benefits but avoid the less healthy side effects
- Fried and Fast Foods – This one is pretty obvious too but you definitely want to stay away from these things if you are concerned about your cholesterol levels (among a million other reasons you want to avoid them)
Ok now onto the foods that can actually help…think foods rich in fiber and poly-unsaturated fats! Fiber, in particular soluble fiber, helps your body enormously in getting rid of cholesterol by binding to it and ushering it along the way to before it can enter into your circulation. Food rich in polyunsaturated fats are also extremely useful in the fight against bad cholesterol because they actually block the body from absorbing it in the first place. Here are some foods to help you fight the good fight:
- Fruits and Veggies – especially citrus fruits, avocados, okra, carrots and even potatoes
- Oats – add a bowl of oatmeal to your morning routine and your body will thank you
- Beans/Legumes – very high in fiber! Black, navy and red beans, to lentils to my personal favorite chickpeas (which I regularly eat straight out of the can or throw on top of my salads) are all excellent sources of soluble fiber
- Nuts – these guys are all around really good for your heart…almonds walnuts and peanuts in particular. Have a handful a day and your heart will be happy 😊
- Fatty Fish – Think salmon, sardines and mackerel…all very good sources of Omega 3’s which lower the bad LDL and increase the good HDL. Salmon is my personal favorite and I try to eat it at least once a week. Try blackening it over a nice garden salad for a great summer-time meal!
- Chocolate and Cacao– This one might be my personal favorite! Dark chocolate which is made up primarily of cacao has been shown to not only lower the bad LDL cholesterol but also can help lower your blood pressure too! I myself keep dark chocolate chips in my pantry and eat a few after dinner because I am always craving something sweet about that time. I also add a small amount of cacao to my daily superfood shake a few times a week when I am making the chocolate flavored variety. Delicious and nutritious!!
There are a few other ones that are good for you as well such as soy, green tea, garlic, barley, and even olive oil (the extra virgin kind) that you can add to you diet pretty easily if you are concerned about or just want to be conscious of your cholesterol levels. The bottom line is our bodies produce cholesterol naturally so we really don’t need to add more on top of that with the foods we are eating. I have made an even bigger effort to pay attention to the foods I am putting into my own body knowing I am already bordering the danger zone. I am hoping with my next physical approaching in a few months that my efforts will have made at least a small dent in my high LDL levels…fingers crossed! Update to come when I find out! In the meantime, I hope some of the info here was helpful as I always think that if I am thinking about something or concerned about something to do with my own health, I am sure there are other people out there in the same boat. As always, lets get healthy together!