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What Is Cholesterol and Do We Need It or Not?

Cholesterol can be a bad word in the heart business. A lot of patients are under the impression, a mistaken impression, that all cholesterol is bad and should be avoided. However, not only is cholesterol produced in our bodies, it is often a part of the foods that keep our diet balanced and mediate metabolic health. It exists in every cell of the body and helps us digest food, produce Vitamin D and regulate hormones. But, in certain circumstances can cause or worsen heart problems.

So, what is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance in the body. In a blood test sense, it is the amount of fats or lipids in the blood. There are three types we measure to get a total cholesterol number including LDL or low-density lipoprotein (often called bad cholesterol), HDL or high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol) and the third is triglycerides or VLDL. Ideally, LDL and triglycerides should be low while HDL should be as high as possible. Overall, the total cholesterol should remain under 200 mg/dL, while 240 is considered high cholesterol.

Why has cholesterol gotten a bad name?

The simple answer is that when too much bad cholesterol is coursing through our bloodstream, it can combine with other substances and begin to form a sticky substance known as plaque that attaches to the walls of our arteries. This is known as atherosclerosis. As this plaque continues to build, it can reduce blood flow and cause a number of uncomfortable or even debilitating conditions.

  • Arterial plaque can cause high blood pressure forcing the heart to pump harder, leading to a weakening of the heart muscle
  • Eventually, plaque formation and clotted blood in the blood vessel can lead to chest pain (angina) or even heart attack if the heart is starved of oxygen
  • If pieces of plaque and clotted blood break off, they can travel to the brain and cause a stroke.

Misconceptions of cholesterol

The biggest misconception regarding cholesterol is the confusion between bad cholesterol and good cholesterol. Many of the healthiest foods we eat contain cholesterol and that is perfectly OK. As long as we maintain a healthy and balanced diet, there’s nothing wrong with consuming cholesterol.

For years, we were told that eating anything with cholesterol, like eggs or shellfish was a sure-fire way or way to have a heart attack. It turns out that this simply was not the case. The likes of egg yolks and shellfish are actually good cholesterols that help our bodies function normally and offer a great deal of nutrition. It is the bad cholesterol, most often found in fatty red meats as well as processed foods, that we need to worry about. Further, smoking can lead to reduced HDL cholesterol and increase the likelihood of follow-on problems. Learn more about maligned foods that are now recommended.

How to Manage Your Cholesterol?

First, and most importantly, if you have a long-standing cholesterol problem speak to your primary care physician or cardiologist about the current state of your cardiovascular system. It is never too late to stop smoking and lose weight which are two of the fastest ways to improve your cholesterol. Improving your exercise regimen and developing a healthy eating plan is also critical to improving your cholesterol situation.

In the end, we do need to manage our cholesterol, but we can do so in a logical and rational manner. Avoiding the worst cholesterol offenders is the first step in ensuring our heart health. However, we should not avoid all foods with fats (unsaturated) and cholesterol entirely as they represent a very important part of a balanced diet and continued health.

Next steps

If you have any questions about cholesterol and what you should or shouldn’t be eating, we suggest that you speak to your cardiologist at your next appointment. You can also consult with a nutritionist or dietitian to learn more about improving your intake of healthy cholesterol and reduce consumption of bad cholesterols.

Until then, follow your doctor’s advice as to how often to be checked for your cholesterol, what to eat and how to exercise to keep your cholesterol down and generally keep your heart healthy.

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