How to understand cholesterol
September 27, 2016
By Jessica Smith, brought to you by Kaiser Permanente
Exploring the difference between HDL and LDL, and tips for maintaining healthy levels
Cholesterol research has come a long way in the past decade. Thanks to new findings, this fatty substance is starting to become better understood.
So what exactly is cholesterol? Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that's found in all cells of the body. According to the National Institutes of Health, your body needs some cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D and substances that help you digest foods. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs. However, cholesterol also is found in some of the foods you eat.
"I think the biggest misconception is that people focus on the number and a number actually isn't the biggest focus anymore," explained Dr. Jeannine Benson of Kaiser Permanente’s Edwards Medical Office. Benson explains to her patients that determining good cholesterol now is a much more holistic approach.
"It's really individually looked at now, based on the family history, lifestyle and personal medical history," she said. "We use a bunch of things in those categories to determine someone's risk of heart attacks and strokes."
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Good and bad cholesterol
LDL (low-density lipoproteins) and HDL (high-density lipoproteins) are the two types of cholesterol. HDL — now dubbed the 'good cholesterol' — should be kept as high as possible while LDL should be held to a minimum.
"People that have high HDL have less strokes and heart attacks," explained Benson.
It's still not completely understood why this is, but the relationship is evident. The best way that a person can raise their HDL is by routinely adopting a few healthy practices.
"Weight loss, increasing aerobic and weight-training exercise and healthy eating habits all help to keep cholesterol levels where they should be," said Benson.
By adopting healthy lifestyle habits, one can dramatically reduce the chance of getting an illness or disease.
Even with more attention given to HDL ('good cholesterol'), it is important not to lose sight of how cholesterol works overall.
"The reason we care about cholesterol levels is because LDL cholesterol can create plaque buildup in the arteries. … These plaques can sometimes break off the arterial walls, which can cause a stroke or a sudden heart attack," said Benson.
Kidney failure and memory problems can also surface if cholesterol levels aren't kept at healthy levels.
Some pain but more gain
Achieving a cholesterol-friendly diet doesn't mean you have to eat tiny portions or can only eat fat-free food; it just means you need to look for the right kind of fat in your meal. Take time to read labels and avoid processed foods as much as possible. These sterilized meals are often pumped with preservatives and trans fats that are harmful to the body.
"It is beneficial if you're eating fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, eating low-fat protein and focus more on whole grains while consuming carbs," said Benson.
When it comes to exercise, pushing yourself to exhaustion isn't necessary, but moving outside your comfort zone is.
"Some moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening activities are really what people can do to help decrease the risk of elevated LDL numbers. Generally around 150 minutes a week is the recommendation, but people can do more if they want to," explained Benson.
Muscle strengthening helps with cholesterol because it speeds up metabolism. A faster metabolism makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight as muscle tissue is being built up instead of becoming replaced with fat.
For some, even with good diet and exercise practices, cholesterol-decreasing medicine may be beneficial as well.
Benson explained that "depending on (a patient's) medical history and their overall risk of a heart attack and a stroke, they may still have naturally elevated LDL numbers in relation to their HDL numbers. That's when they would want to talk with their doc about adding cholesterol-lowering medication."
Cholesterol isn't the negative topic that it used to be. With awareness of your levels, along with understanding what can be done to maintain a healthy lifestyle, cholesterol is easily managed by most people.