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The cholesterol scale

Balancing the good, the bad and the essential

Cholesterol gets a bad rap. It’s cited, it seems, as the source of nearly every health issue from backache to baldness. In fact, cholesterol is essential for human life, and without it, we’d all be in dire straits. Eighty percent of the cholesterol in your blood is manufactured by your own liver, which uses this wax-like structure to make acids that help digest food. It builds and repairs your body’s cells, insulates your nerves, helps you digest food and assists in the production of certain hormones.

Still, cholesterol levels among Americans are at an all-time high. And it’s not just lazy good-for-nothings with lousy eating habits battling boosted cholesterol counts. Even those among us who exercise regularly and watch what we eat can be driving our cholesterol counts through the roof.

The secret is to maintain a higher level of “good” cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and lower levels of less-healthy, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. High concentrations of HDL cholesterol in the blood are generally associated with a lower risk of heart attack, because it helps remove cholesterol from artery walls. HDL also carries cholesterol to the liver, where it’s either reused or disposed of in the bile. LDL, on the other hand, becomes oxidized and attaches to artery walls, which can initiate hardening of the arteries and lead to a heart attack.

Striking a healthy cholesterol balance is relatively simple. And while doctors are preparing a new cholesterol-lowering vaccine for medical trials, and health gurus are touting Indian tree sap as the latest LDL blocker, we’ve compiled a more traditional set of cholesterol-busting tips. 

The obvious: diet and exercise

Among the quickest cures for high cholesterol is a change in your diet, according to Margo Denke, M.D., of the University of Texas Medical Center. To reduce your cholesterol intake, eat meat no more than three times per week. Choose lean cuts like top sirloin or flank steaks, and remove as much fat as possible before cooking. Better yet, skip red meat altogether and eat more fish and poultry – skinless, of course. Salmon and catfish are high in polyunsaturated fat and among the lowest in total fat of most seafood’s. Stay away from shrimp and lobster, which are high in cholesterol.

Dairy foods are notorious for fat content, so Denke recommends switching to lowfat milk and skipping most yellow cheeses. Keep a keen eye on the amount of saturated fat in your diet. Saturated fat, found in both animal and dairy foods, is a real culprit in elevating cholesterol levels, because it’s more easily converted into artery-lining cholesterol than any other food component.

Eggs are nutritious, but just one of them contains the American Heart Association’s recommended daily intake of cholesterol. If you have to have an omelet, remove the yolks. And remember that mayonnaise and many salad dressings contain eggs, so read the ingredients or check the nutritional information before glopping them onto your favorite condiments.

It’s not all about what you don’t eat; you can keep your cholesterol level in check by adding certain foods to your diet. Start with a fiber-rich breakfast that includes oatmeal, a whole-grain muffin and a piece of fruit. Choose dried cereals that contain more than four grams of fiber per serving, like rice bran or oat bran flakes. If you eat pancakes or waffles, make sure they’re made with whole-grain flour.

Beans provide a lot of protein and are low in cholesterol. Five-bean salads are great, and hummus is even better, especially if it’s made with garlic. Cooked or raw garlic contains compounds that can lower your liver’s cholesterol production. Snacks like almonds, walnuts and avocados are high in monounsaturated fat, which helps to improve cholesterol levels. And Denke suggests eating as many servings of fruit and vegetables as you can each day. Whole fruit provides more fiber than fruit juice does, unless you’re juicing your fruit with the skin on.

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This Article appears on the September 2011 issue of LPM under Health

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