Before you start chomping on those cheese fries or that greasy
burger, you might want to take a closer look at whether you're
getting too much cholesterol.
Cholesterol, a waxy substance produced by the liver and found in
certain foods, is needed to make vitamin D and some hormones, build
cell walls, and create bile salts that help you digest fat.
Actually, your body produces enough cholesterol so that if you
never touched another cheese fry, you'd be OK. But it's
hard to avoid cholesterol entirely because so many foods contain
Too much cholesterol in the body can lead to serious problems
like heart disease. Many factors can contribute to high
cholesterol, but the good news is there are things you can do to
Taking a Look at Cholesterol
Lipids are fats that are found throughout the body. Cholesterol,
a type of lipid, is found in foods from animal sources. This means
that eggs, meats, and whole-fat dairy products (including milk,
cheese, and ice cream) are loaded with cholesterol - and
vegetables, fruits, and grains contain none.
The liver produces about 1,000 milligrams of cholesterol a day,
and you probably consume about 150 to 250 milligrams in the foods
Because cholesterol can't travel alone through the
bloodstream, it has to combine with certain proteins. These
proteins act like trucks, picking up the cholesterol and
transporting it to different parts of the body. When this happens,
the cholesterol and protein form a lipoprotein together.
The two most important types of lipoproteins are
(or HDL) and
(or LDL). You've probably heard people call LDL cholesterol
"bad cholesterol" and HDL cholesterol "good
cholesterol" because of their very different effects on the
body. Most cholesterol is LDL cholesterol, and this is the kind
that's most likely to clog the blood vessels, keeping blood
from flowing through the body the way it should.
About one third to one fourth of the total amount of cholesterol
is HDL cholesterol. HDL cholesterol carries cholesterol back to the
liver, where it can be processed and sent out of the body.
Why Do People Worry About High Cholesterol?
When you have too much cholesterol, it can be dangerous to your
health. When LDL cholesterol levels are high, cholesterol is
deposited on the walls of arteries and forms a hard substance
Over time, plaque causes the arteries to become narrower,
decreasing blood flow and causing a condition called
-sis), or hardening of the arteries.
When atherosclerosis affects the coronary arteries (the blood
vessels that supply the muscles of the heart), the condition is
coronary artery disease
, which puts a person at risk for having a heart attack. When
atherosclerosis affects the blood vessels that supply the brain,
the condition is called
cerebral vascular disease
, which puts a person at risk of having a stroke.
Atherosclerosis may also block blood flow to other vital organs,
including the kidneys and intestines. This is why it's so
important to start paying attention to cholesterol levels as a teen
- you can delay or prevent serious health problems in the
What Causes High LDL Cholesterol Levels?
Some of the factors that can lead to high cholesterol are:
- Excess weight has been linked with high cholesterol
- If cholesterol problems or heart disease run in your family,
you are at a higher risk for having problems.
- Remember the saying "you are what you eat"? Avoid
foods that are high in cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat,
all of which increase cholesterol levels and your risk of
developing heart disease.
- Exercise tends to increase HDL levels, which lowers your chance
of developing heart disease.
- The risk of high cholesterol increases as you get older.
What Can I Do to Lower My Cholesterol?
Some people who have high cholesterol levels need to be on
medication as part of their treatment to lower it. Although most
teens won't need to take medication to lower their cholesterol,
it's still important to keep cholesterol in check. To see if
you have high cholesterol, talk to your doctor, who can test your
cholesterol levels by drawing a sample of your blood.
You can't change your genes but there are things you can do
now to decrease your risk for heart disease later. Try to eat less
saturated fat, limit the amount of trans fat, and limit cholesterol
if you're not sure how much of these particular foods
The American Heart Association recommends that cholesterol
intake should be less than 300 milligrams a day, total fat intake
should be 30% or less of your total calories, and saturated fat
should be 10% or less of the total daily calories you consume.
Also, maintain a healthy weight and get moving. Regular aerobic
exercise - stuff like biking, walking, and swimming - strengthens
your heart, lowers cholesterol, and helps you to lose excess
weight. For people who smoke, quitting can help decrease the risk
of heart disease.
Here are some helpful tips you can try:
- Eat a diet that contains many low-cholesterol foods: fruits,
veggies, whole grains (like breads and cereals), legumes (beans),
- Eat a diet that is low in saturated and trans fat. Replace
saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats - for example,
cook with olive oil or another heart-friendly oil instead of
using butter or stick margarine.
- If you eat meat, try using lean meat like skinless poultry.
Make sure you trim off all noticeable fat before cooking and
drain the fat from the pan after browning meats.
- Instead of frying, try boiling, broiling, baking, roasting,
poaching, steaming, or sautÃ©ing.
- Instead of whole milk, use low-fat or nonfat milk, which
contains all the nutrients without all the fat. Also, try low-fat
or nonfat yogurts and cheeses or cottage cheese. You can also
substitute low-fat buttermilk or yogurt in a recipe that calls
for cream cheese or sour cream.
- Use trans-fat-free margarine.
- Instead of meat, try beans, peas, lentils, or tofu.
- Instead of eggs, try just egg whites or cholesterol-free
commercial egg substitutes.
- Use liquid vegetable oil or tub margarine instead of butter,
shortening, or stick margarine. Stay away from products that
contain hydrogenated vegetable oils.
- Pass on commercially prepared baked goods, which are often
made with hydrogenated oils or trans fats.
- Looking for
that are low in fat and cholesterol? Try fruits, raw veggies and
low-fat dips, low-fat cookies and crackers, plain unsalted
popcorn or pretzels, gelatin, or low-fat yogurt.
If you are concerned about cholesterol and heart disease, talk
to your doctor. Visit the American Heart Association's website,
which contains lots of information as well as easy low-cholesterol
recipes for you to try at home. Although not all the factors
contributing to heart disease and high cholesterol can be
controlled, many can. Start taking care of your body now and it
will thank you in the future.
Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: September 2006
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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