Lower cholesterol to reduce your risk for heart disease

September is National Cholesterol Awareness Month

A woman bites into hamburger

Cholesterol has made headlines lately as researchers continue to study its role in heart disease, but the bottom line remains: lowering dietary cholesterol can help reduce your risk for heart disease.

Cholesterol isn’t all bad. This substance, which is a type of fat called a sterol, helps hold cells together, aids in digestion, and maintains many other important bodily functions.  It’s produced naturally by our bodies and is also found in animal products.

But too much cholesterol contributes to heart disease.

Leading cause of death

Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in the US, and it kills about 600,000 people every year, according to David Joseph, M.D., an ADC family practice physician.

“You can’t change some factors that can cause high cholesterol levels, such as your genes, age, and gender,” Dr. Joseph said.  “Diet is the one area that can have a significant impact for many of the 65 million Americans who have high blood cholesterol.”

“Good” and “bad” cholesterol research

Researchers have been studying how different kinds of cholesterol affect a person’s risk for disease. High density lipoprotein (HDL) is considered good, while and low density lipoprotein (LDL) is considered bad.

LDL can collect on artery walls, forming thick substance called cholesterol plaque. Over time, cholesterol plaque can narrow arteries — a process called atherosclerosis — which is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and other health problems, says Dr. Joseph.

Researchers have been looking at whether HDL can counteract the effects of LDL, but a study published in May 2012 caused some to question that idea. Larger studies have found that higher HDL levels are associated with a lower risk for heart disease, but the new study could not find a causative relationship.

You are what you eat

While eating more good cholesterol may not lower your risk for heart disease, eating less cholesterol overall can help you keep levels in check.

Dr. Joseph says cutting back on saturated fat, trans fats and cholesterol goes a long way. Cholesterol can be found in any food that uses animal products, even snack foods and bread.

“Simply cutting your intake of these food products could help to lower your cholesterol levels,” says Dr. Joseph. “Some foods, such as whole grains and whole-wheat products and nuts such as walnuts, almonds, and Brazil nuts, may have a healthy effect on blood cholesterol levels.”

Dr. Joseph also suggests eating foods shown to control cholesterol levels, like omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty fish like tuna, salmon or mackerel, as well as fish oil supplements, flaxseeds, and flaxseed oil.

The American Heart Association also has recommendations for lowering dietary cholesterol.

  • Choose lean meats and prepare them without added fat.
  • Try to eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day.
  • Watch portion sizes.

High cholesterol testing

High cholesterol is a condition that can often go unnoticed. That’s why it’s important to ask your doctor about your risk.

“People with high cholesterol may not even know it, so the only way to be sure is with a blood test,” says Dr. Joseph. “If you are interested in learning what your cholesterol level is, you should ask your physician.”