Recipe for a Healthy Heart: Cholesterol Numbers

Choosing certain foods can help cholesterol numbers add up in your favor.

Cholesterol-friendly foods
Photo: Randy Mayor

Many factors affect your cholesterol levels. Some, like genes and age, can’t be helped, but others, such as diet and weight, are decidedly in your control. "Research shows that certain dietary strategies can lower harmful LDL cholesterol by as much as 20 to 30 percent," says Wahida Karmally, DrPH, RD, director of nutrition at Columbia University. More positive news: Today’s cholesterol-control strategy is a far cry from the restrictive regimens of yesteryear. Now the focus is more on what you can eat than what you can’t.

Cholesterol 101
What it does: Cholesterol is a vital nutrient your body needs the same way it requires calcium for strong bones. Your liver produces between 800 and 1,500 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per day―about three to five times the amount you’d ideally obtain from food. "Cholesterol is a good thing," says Richard A. Stein, MD, director of Urban Community Cardiology at New York University School of Medicine. "You use it to make bile, some hormones, and the membranes that line your cells. But you want to have enough to meet your body’s needs, not so much that it builds up in your arteries."

Types of cholesterol: While you’ve heard of "good" and "bad" cholesterol, those terms are misnomers. The way cholesterol travels in your body is what makes it "good" or "bad."

Cholesterol is carried by lipoproteins, packages of fats that circulate in your bloodstream, delivering cholesterol to cells in need. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) sweeps through your bloodstream, soaking up unused cholesterol and delivering it to your body’s cholesterol-control center―the liver, where it’s recycled from your body. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) roams the bloodstream and deposits cholesterol where it’s needed, and sometimes where it’s not, like the walls of your arteries. There it can build up as plaque, narrowing arteries and reducing blood flow, raising risk of stroke or heart disease. When health experts talk about lowering cholesterol, they’re not referring to total cholesterol. They mean LDL.


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