What is Cholesterol? How to Deal With it?

Many of us know that cholesterol is bad for health. The reality is that not all the cholesterol is bad. There is good cholesterol as well as bad cholesterol. Only high levels of bad cholesterol is unhealthy.

One sad thing about cholesterol is unlike sugar (diabetes), BP and other health conditions high cholesterol in the body doesn’t show any signs or symptoms. In most cases, once the patient suffers a heart attack or stroke, it will be uncovered that it is due to high cholesterol.

Basic information and knowledge about cholesterol and its effects is essential in today’s modern lifestyles.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fat-like, waxy substance that is present in almost all parts/cells of our body. Optimal level of cholesterol is required for the body to make hormones, absorb vitamins, and to repair damaged cells. There are two sources of cholesterol – 75% is made by liver and other cells and 25% comes from the food we eat. Cholesterol is abundant in animal cells and foods of animal origin.

What is Bad cholesterol and good cholesterol?

Cholesterol travels in the blood stream in small packets called lipoproteins. Lipoproteins have fats/lipids inside and proteins outside and thus the name.

Two types of lipoproteins carry cholesterol throughout the blood stream – LDL (Low density lipoproteins) and HDL (High density lipoproteins).

  • LDL:

    LDL is often termed as bad cholesterol because this molecule distributes cholesterol from liver to various parts of the body and thus increases thickness of walls of blood vessels, especially arteries. Therefore high levels of LDL may lead to blocking of arteries and thus increases the chances of heart diseases.

Foods that increase the levels of LDL are egg yolk, hydrogenated vegetable oil i.e., dalda or vanaspathi, whole fat dairy products, butter, potato chips, alcohol, etc.

  • HDL:

    On the other hand, HDL is known as good cholesterol because it collects cholesterol from all parts of body and takes it back to liver, and the liver tries to remove that cholesterol from the body. Thus, more levels of HDL help reduce bad cholesterol in the body.

Food sources that are rich in HDL are vegetable oils like soya bean oil, corn oil, olive oil etc., wall nuts, fish that contains omega 3 fatty acid, etc

High blood cholesterol and low blood cholesterol

  • High cholesterol levels –

    This is the condition in which a person has too much of cholesterol. The higher the LDL is the greater the chances of getting coronary heart diseases, atherosclerosis (hardening of artery walls), etc. This condition usually doesn’t show any symptoms or signs thus many people less likely know they have high cholesterol.

  • Low cholesterol levels –

    It is good if we cut down cholesterol levels, but if it falls below the normal level, people undergo feeling of depression, anxiety, in case of pregnancy it leads to early birth and immature baby.

Factors leading to high cholesterol levels

  • Lifestyle –

    which include overweight, heavy alcohol consumption, smoking, having trans fatty foods like cookies, chips, fast foods etc.

  • Existing health conditions –

    Diabetes, hypothyroidism, poly-cystic ovarian disease (generally associated with women), kidney malfunctioning, etc.

  • Family history –

    Individuals from a family with high bad cholesterol levels( hyper-cholesterolemia) have high chances of risk for altered cholesterol levels.

Test to detect cholesterol levels

Individuals should go for lipid profile test to estimate their levels of cholesterol. This test include levels of LDL, HDL, triglycerides together which gives a value of total blood cholesterol level.

This table gives information about only total cholesterol (LDL+HDL), not the lipid profile.

Total Cholesterol Level Risk categories
Less than 200 mg/dL Desirable
200 – 239 mg/dL Borderline high
240 mg/dL and higher High
LDL Cholesterol Level
Less than 100 mg/dL Optimal
100 to 129 mg/dL Near or above optimal
130 to 159 mg/dL Borderline high
160 to 189 mg/dL High
190 mg/dL and above Very high
HDL Cholesterol Level
Less than 40 mg/dL (for men)
Less than 50 mg/dL (for women)
Low HDL cholesterol- a major risk factor for heart disease
60 mg/dL and above An HDL of 60 mg/dL and above is considered protective against heart disease

By looking at the values, we can assess the risk and take necessary steps to maintain normal cholesterol levels.

How To maintain healthy cholesterol levels

  • People aged 35+ should go for a cholesterol test every 3-6 months.As mentioned earlier, high cholesterol show no symptoms
  • Exercise regularly – whether you are overweight or not, daily doing exercise 30 minutes increase good cholesterol levels. Do simple exercises like walking for few minutes after lunch, swimming, playing any sport you like.
  • Avoid/limit unhealthy habits like smoking, alcohol and junk foods
  • Take foods that help reduce bad cholesterol and boost good cholesterol
    • Oatmeal (fiber rich food) – soluble fiber in oats bind to bad cholesterol, prevents its absorption during digestion in intestine and eliminates bad cholestrol from the body.
    • Olive oil (helps reduce LDL)
    • Apples (rich in fiber)
    • Grapes (prevent accumulation of cholesterol)
    • Garlic (prevents blood clotting)
    • Flax seeds (known to reduce about 8-14% of cholesterol levels). Commonly called ulavalu in telugu and Alsi ka beegh in Hindi)
    • Almonds (absorb excess cholesterol from body)
    • Blackberries (reduce LDL)
    • Soya beans (rich in protein and fiber – will cut down cholesterol levels)
    • Pears – (have a natural fiber which reduces bad and increase good cholesterol)
    • Tomatoes – (have a compound called ‘lycopene’ which cuts down LDL)
    • Green Tea/black tea – Rich in antioxidants which lower blood cholesterol levels
    • Avocados – Contain large amounts of monounsaturated fats which increase good cholesterol levels. Cultivated in TamilNadu, Kerala, Maharashtra.

Suggested Readings:
Flax Seed Recipes For Cholesterol Management

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