Most of us know it’s important to watch our cholesterol levels, but do you really know what that means? Between HDLs, LDLs and triglycerides it can be confusing to determine which of these is bad, which is good and how to get them in proper balance.
Emily Dionne, Registered Dietitian at South Shore Medical Center, realizes the confusion that often surrounds cholesterol levels. “While no two patients are alike, there are certain good and bad types of cholesterol—also known as lipids—that we all have,” Emily notes. "While the numbers themselves seem confusing, I always tell my patients that knowing these numbers can help determine if you are at an increased risk for heart disease or stroke by looking at substances in your blood that carry cholesterol.”
There are different types of lipids carried through your bloodstream in small bunches of fats and proteins called lipoproteins. There are two main types of lipoproteins: Low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), known as the “bad” cholesterol, and high-density lipoproteins (HDLs), known as the “good” cholesterol. Triglycerides, a third type of lipid, is the fat your body creates when you consume calories your body doesn't immediately need. While your body will burn these off between meals, in excess amounts triglycerides may be harmful and could increase your risk of heart disease. For this reason, triglyceride levels are also an important measure of metabolic health. A blood test called a lipoprotein (or lipid) panel can help show whether you're at risk for developing Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) by looking at the substances in your blood that carry cholesterol. CAD can affect your life without warning—through a heart attack or a stroke.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take on your own to help balance your cholesterol levels, which in turn can help to lower your risk of CAD:
- Quit Smoking
Smoking is a big no-no for our health overall. If you are a smoker, look into getting involved with a support group to quit. The benefits of quitting are significant. Not only will quitting improve your HDL cholesterol level within 20 minutes of quitting, your blood pressure and heart rate decrease; within one year, your risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker; and within 15 years, your risk of heart disease is similar to someone who never smoked.
- Increase Your Physical Activity
Exercise is proven to improve cholesterol. When done regularly, it can raise levels of heart-protecting HDL cholesterol and can also lower dangerous triglyceride levels. Moderate physical activity will help you lose fat and build muscle—all helping to improve cholesterol levels. With your doctor’s approval, it is often recommended to exercise at least 30 minutes a day.
- Lose Weight
Even a few pounds of excess weight can negatively impact cholesterol. Losing as little as 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can significantly improve cholesterol levels with the added benefit of reducing your risk of diabetes.
Talk to your doctor about referring you to a registered dietitian, who can help evaluate your current eating habits and lifestyle and help you make small daily changes that add up to big success. Learn more about South Shore Medical Center's adult weight management program, Weigh to Go, facilitated by registered dietitians (offered twice monthly, with convenient morning and evening sessions available). You don't need to be a patient of South Shore Medical Center to register for this program.
- Limit Alcohol Consumption
Too much alcohol can often lead to serious health problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men under the age of 65.
- Choose Heart-Healthy Fats
A few modest changes to your diet can improve cholesterol—even if your past consisted of years of unhealthy eating. Saturated fats, found in foods like red meat and dairy products, raise your total cholesterol, especially the LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
“As a rule, you should really consume no more than seven percent of your daily caloric intake from saturated fat,” said Emily. "Choosing leaner cuts of meats and low-fat dairy, allows you healthier options to still enjoy these foods." Read food labels and choose items that contain less than five percent (of the % daily value) of saturated fat.
- Measure Your Lipids
Typically, primary care physicians recommend patients have their cholesterol measured at least once every five years, starting as young as 20 years old. The good news: the current thinking allows for non-fasting cholesterol screenings, as opposed to the old way of needing to skip breakfast before your cholesterol test.
Learn what your different cholesterol numbers mean and the important steps you can take to improve your results and lower your risk of developing heart disease by making an appointment at the South Shore Medical Center Cholesterol Clinic. We offer scheduling convenience, including evening hours. For more information, or to schedule a cholesterol clinic appointment, call 781-878-5200. Group classes may be covered by your health insurance.