Keep Your Heart in Tick Tock Shape

by Heather Reese Patient Expert

Fifty percent of Americans have high cholesterol, according to recent statistics from the American Heart Association (AHA). Worse yet, 17 percent of Americans have a blood cholesterol level over 240, which puts them at high risk for heart attack and stroke. These rates are alarming, but there is something we can do about it Many people can improve their cholesterol levels through diet and exercise. In fact, with just small changes in what you eat and by being more active, you can make great strides toward reducing your risk of heart disease.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is produced in your liver. It has many functions in the body, such as:

  • Fat digestion

  • It is an important part of cell membranes

  • Production of hormones like cortisone, adrenaline, estrogen and testosterone

Despite having several roles in the body, you only need a small amount of cholesterol and any leftovers are deposited in your arteries. This excess cholesterol contributes to narrowing of the arteries and blockages that can lead to heart attack and stroke.

I will be specifically talking about two types of cholesterol: HDL, which I refer to as your "healthy" cholesterol and LDL, which I refer to as your "lousy" cholesterol. To put it simply you want to keep your healthy cholesterol level high and your lousy cholesterol level low. Just remember HDL/ Healthy/ High and LDL/ Lousy/ Low. Both types of cholesterol are affected by diet and exercise. While many people can control their cholesterol levels through lifestyle changes, some people do require medication.

Diet and Cholesterol

The good news is that diet and exercise can help you keep your healthy cholesterol high and your lousy cholesterol low. Eggs have taken a beating when it comes to low cholesterol diets. This is because the AHA recommends limiting dietary cholesterol to 300 mg. per day and a single egg has 210 mg. of cholesterol, nearly your daily limit! However, recent research shows that it is dietary fat, not dietary cholesterol, that has the largest impact on your blood cholesterol levels.

Saturated fats, which are found in meat, poultry, full-fat dairy products and in tropical oils can increase both your total cholesterol and your lousy cholesterol levels. The AHA recommends limiting your intake of saturated fats to less than 10 percent of your total daily calories. Saturated fats include:

  • Lard

  • Butter

  • Meat fat

  • Dairy products made from whole milk

  • Chicken and turkey skins

  • Palm and palm kernel oils

  • Coconut oil

  • Cocoa butter

Trans fat has also been found to raise cholesterol levels. This type of fat is not naturally occurring and is created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to create a solid substance. While it was once considered to be a healthy substitute for saturated fat, trans fat has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease. It is added to many commercially processed foods and baked goods. To determine if whether a food you are eating contains trans fat look for the following ingredients on the food label:

  • Shortening

  • Hydrogenated vegetable oil

  • Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil

Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease. This healthy fat comes from cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring and trout as well as walnuts, canola oil, flaxseed oil and soybean oil. The AHA recommends consuming fish high in Omega 3 fatty acids in place of highly saturated meat products at least two times per week to lower your risk of heart disease.

Soluble Fiber
Soluble fiber, found in oats, barley, lentils and split peas and beans has been found to protect against heart disease by reducing your lousy cholesterol. It reduces the absorption of cholesterol in your intestines and helps your body excrete the excess. Experts recommend consuming 20 to 35 grams of fiber each day, with at least 3 to 4 grams from soluble sources to reduce cholesterol levels.

Exercise and Cholesterol
Exercise is another lifestyle factor that can affect your blood cholesterol levels. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005 recommends getting at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week. Regular exercise can improve your cholesterol levels, especially your health cholesterol. As always, if you are over the age of 40, are overweight or have a pre-existing condition consult your physician before beginning an exercise program.

Heather Reese
Meet Our Writer
Heather Reese

Heather wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Food & Nutrition.