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Knowing Your Cholesterol Numbers

By: Ann Marie

Anne Marie Coppen

PhD, FNP, Nurse Practitioner

For a personal response to your health question, Ask Ann Marie at askannmarie@lindora.com. Selected questions will be featured in future columns.

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“Know Your Numbers.”

“I get so confused when the doctor tells me my cholesterol scores.  I never know if I should be worried or relieved.  Can you explain it to me?”

When we hear the word ‘cholesterol’, the first thing that comes to mind for many drivers is, ‘Do I have a problem?’  Let’s clear up some misconceptions regarding cholesterol.

First, cholesterol isn’t all bad- at normal levels it actually helps your body’s cells do their job. Your body, mainly your liver, produces about 75% of the cholesterol that circulates in your blood.  The food you eat is responsible for the other 25%.

While for some genetics may play a role in high cholesterol, for many, the cause is a poor diet that is too high in saturated fats.

Is it true that more than 100 million Americans, many of them professional drivers, have high cholesterol?

Yes, unfortunately it’s true, and many of them don’t even know it.  The big problem with high cholesterol is that it doesn’t give early warning signs while it is doing damage to the body.  Too much cholesterol often leads to a buildup of plaque inside your arteries, clogging them up and blocking blood flow to your heart, brain, and other important organs.  Eventually, this can cause heart attacks, strokes and premature death.

As I’ve said before, it’s important to ‘Know Your Numbers’. It’s as important as knowing the fluid levels in your truck. A simple blood test will measure the different forms of lipids (fats) that are circulating in your blood stream.  This test will show your levels of “bad” cholesterol, “good” cholesterol, and triglycerides.

Part 1 – “Bad” Cholesterol – LDL

Your blood test results will indicate your levels of “low density lipoproteins”, or LDL cholesterol. This is what we call the “bad” cholesterol (think “L is for low/bad”) Most of the cholesterol in your blood is carried by this protein.  A diet high in saturated fats and trans fats tend to raise the level of LDL cholesterol.  For most, an LDL score below 100 is good, but people with heart disease may need to aim even lower.

Here are some foods that are high in saturated fats and trans fats and can raise your LDL cholesterol levels:  meats (especially fried) , dairy products (whole milk & cheese), baked goods, fried foods (chips, fries, doughnuts), butter, cookies, and excessive alcohol consumption.

Part 2 – “Good” Cholesterol – HDL

You will also receive a HDL score.  HDL stands for ‘high-density lipoproteins’ (think “H is for high/good”).  This is known as the good cholesterol because it helps prevent bad cholesterol from building up and clogging your arteries.  The higher the level of HDL, the better!  If you have too little of the good HDL cholesterol, your risk for developing heart disease is higher.  Including more ‘healthy fats’ in your diet and getting plenty of healthy exercise will help increase your HDL score and also help protect you from heart disease and strokes.

Healthy fats include:  olive oil, walnut oil, safflower oil, flaxseed oil, avocados, salmon, sardines, and raw almonds.

Part 3 – Triglycerides – the third piece of the puzzle

This score is important too because your body converts excess calories, sugar, and alcohol into triglycerides.  Triglycerides are a type of fat that are carried through your blood and stored in fat cells throughout your body.  A triglyceride score of 150 or higher puts you at higher risk for heart disease, stroke,  and diabetes.

Who tends to be at risk for having high triglycerides?

  • Overweight or obese people
  • Smokers
  • Inactive people
  • Heavy drinkers
  • People who eat too many high-carbohydrate, sugary foods
  • People with diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol (fried foods, “junk” food)

Mini Quiz

If your LDL score is higher than 100 and your triglycerides score is over 150 – should you be worried or relieved?

Answer:  Worried.

If your numbers are worrisome, it’s time to take charge and make some small changes that will have a big impact on your life.  You have the power to make these changes. Healthy changes in your diet can be a powerful way to beat high cholesterol.  Increasing your dietary fiber is a great way to lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Good sources of fiber include:  whole-grain breads and cereals, oatmeal, fruit, nuts and seeds, vegetables and legumes (such as kidney beans).

Note: Be careful not to overdo fruit in your diet- this can actually increase triglycerides, especially in people with Type 2 diabetes or a family history of Type 2 diabetes or heart disease.

The good news is that you can make choices that can influence your cholesterol scores significantly.  Making healthier food choices, watching your portion sizes, eating regularly throughout the day and exercising more, will change your cholesterol scores for the better and positively impact your life.  Most importantly, please remember since there are no symptoms to high cholesterol, it’s very important for you to visit your doctor regularly and  KNOW YOUR NUMBERS.

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