High cholesterol is a health epidemic that faces millions of Americans. Roughly 11 percent of Americans have high cholesterol and a staggering 95 million are above the healthy levels. Left unchecked, it is one of the most prevalent causes of heart disease and stroke. One of the scariest things about high cholesterol is that there aren’t any symptoms. The only way to know if you have high cholesterol is with a blood test. If you’re living an unhealthy lifestyle, you may have high blood pressure and may not even know the risks you face.

The Science

Cholesterol is a word we often hear, but one that’s less often explained. There are two types of cholesterol, the kind made by your liver and the dietary cholesterol. Cholesterol are lipids — or fatty waxy proteins found in the bloodstream. Lipids are used for building healthy cells or storing fat. There are three types of lipids — low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides. HDL-cholesterol is considered healthy cholesterol, since it helps remove bad cholesterol (LDL) from our bloodstream. Triglycerides are fats in our foods that are stored and used for energy.

LDL-cholesterol is stored in the bloodstream and becomes part of plaque that clogs arteries.

But it’s LDL-cholesterol that most people refer to when they discuss cholesterol. LDL-cholesterol is stored in the bloodstream and becomes part of plaque that clogs arteries. This blocks the flow of blood to and from your heart and other organs, increasing your chances of heart disease which can lead to heart attacks or stroke. High levels of LDL-cholesterol or low levels of HDL-cholesterol are generally linked with high risk of heart disease due to high cholesterol. Age, gender, and diabetes are also risk factors.

Eating a Healthier Diet

One of the simplest ways to lower your cholesterol is to eat healthier. Specifically, cutting out the bad foods and replacing them with heart-healthier ones. Some examples of foods you should avoid are foods high in dietary cholesterol or trans fats. Dietary cholesterol-rich foods tend to be fatty meat and animal products. Some common examples of this are egg yolks, whole milk, and shellfish. That said, the debate over eggs, and dietary cholesterol in general, still rages.

Trans fats are the worse of the two when it comes to cholesterol. Not only do they raise your LDL, but trans fats are shown to actually lower your HDL. Trans fats tend to be in margarines, many baked goods, and processed goods. The most common source of trans fats are partially hydrogenated oils.

It may seem counterproductive, but one of the best ways to combat unhealthy fats is more fat.

You can also avoid high cholesterol by eating heart-healthier foods. It may seem counterproductive, but one of the best ways to combat unhealthy fats is more fat — healthy fats, that is. You’ll want to look for unsaturated fats, like omega-3 fatty acids. These can be found in fatty fish, olive oil, and certain nuts. Avocados are also sources of healthy fats. Dietary fibers are also shown to lower cholesterol. It’s believed that soluble (dietary) fiber reduces the absorption of LDL into the bloodstream. Luckily, there are many foods out that can naturally lower your cholesterol, giving you plenty of options to try.

Living a Healthier Life

There are also two major lifestyle changes that you can make to improve your cholesterol levels. The first is exercising more. Adding any exercise to your routine is good for you, but the American Heart Association suggests 40 minutes of moderate exercise three or four times a week. Others suggest 30 to 60 minutes a day, though this can be two 15-minute sessions or one 60-minute walk. The important thing is to exercise.

Adding any exercise to your routine is good for you.

Second, losing weight, through exercise and diet, has been shown to effectively lower your total cholesterol levels.

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Watching your cholesterol and dieting can be difficult, but the extra effort is worth it. With the amount of life-threatening cases of heart disease via high cholesterol so prevalent, you need to protect yourself. If you keep your total cholesterol under 200mg/dL, LDL under 100 mg/dL, your triglycerides under 150 mg/dL, and your HDL over 40 mg/dL, you should be good. A healthy lifestyle and diet should help you achieve this.