Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the blood. The body uses it to make hormones, like testosterone and estrogen.
It is even essential for metabolism and for normal functioning of the membranes that surround cells. However, all types of cholesterol are not good for your heath.
LDL or low-density lipoprotein is considered the ‘bad’ cholesterol, while HDL or high-density lipoprotein is the ‘good’ cholesterol.
A small amount of LDL is not bad for you, but an excess can cause a buildup of plaque (thick, hard deposits) in the inner walls of your arteries. This increases your risk of heart disease, attacks or strokes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Backention (CDC), more than one-third of adults in America have raised levels of LDL cholesterol. As per the CDC, the following blood cholesterol levels are considered healthy.
Total cholesterol: less than 200 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter of blood)
LDL cholesterol: less than 100 mg/dL
HDL cholesterol: 40 mg/dL or higher
Triglycerides: less than 150 mg/dL
As high cholesterol has no symptoms, many people are not even aware that they have it. This is why it is recommended that adults get their cholesterol levels checked every few years. People who are at a higher risk of unhealthy cholesterol levels should get checked more frequently.
Here are the top 10 risk factors for high cholesterol.
1. Increasing Age
Your risk of high cholesterol increases as you get older. Men age 45 or older and women age 55 or older are at increased risk of high cholesterol and heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends all adults, beginning at age 20, have their cholesterol levels checked every 4 to 6 years.
2. Women who are Postmenopausal
Anyone can have high cholesterol; however women after menopause are at a higher risk. It is due to their increasing age as well as the hormonal changes associated with menopause. Menopause even increases the risk for heart disease among women.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology states that LDL cholesterol increases rapidly after menopause.
3. Genetics and Family History
Ggenetics and hereditary factors can also increase your risk of having high cholesterol levels. If you have a close family member who has cholesterol problems or heart disease, be alert and get your cholesterol levels checked more often to be on the safe side.
4. Unhealthy Diet
A poor diet can also raise total and LDL cholesterol levels. Eating an excess amount of saturated fat, found in animal products, and trans fats, found in some commercially baked cookies, biscuits, pastries and crackers, can raise your cholesterol levels.
A healthy diet that includes fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, lean meat and low-fat or fat-free dairy products is something that everyone should adopt.
Being obese can increase your LDL cholesterol level and lower your HDL level. In fact, a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above puts you at risk of high cholesterol.
In addition, obesity can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, chronic kidney disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and many other conditions.
Try to maintain a healthy weight to reduce your risk of high cholesterol as well as heart disease.
6. Large Waist Circumference
Men with a waist circumference of at least 40 inches and women with a waist circumference of at least 35 inches are at a higher risk of developing unhealthy LDL levels.
A 2001 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a large waist circumference was associated significantly with low HDL-cholesterol concentrations and high fasting triacylglycerol, insulin and glucose concentrations.
The harmful toxins and chemicals in cigarette smoke damage the walls of your blood vessels. This leads to accumulation of fatty deposits in the arteries.
In fact, excess smoking also lowers your level of HDL good cholesterol. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry highlights the effect of cigarette smoke and lower HDL cholesterol levels. This increases the risk of cardiovascular disease in smokers.
People suffering from diabetes often have higher LDL and lower HDL cholesterol because high blood sugar damages the lining of the arteries.
In fact, borderline LDL cholesterol elevation is common in diabetic patients and is associated with substantial cardiovascular risk
People with diabetes should have their cholesterol tested yearly.
9. Lack of Exercise
Regular exercise plays a key role in maintaining your heart health. It also helps maintain a healthy weight and reduce LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
On the other hand, living a sedentary lifestyle and not getting enough exercise puts you at a higher risk of having a high LDL level.
Exercise for about 30 minutes most days of the week and increase your daily physical activity, such as short walks and other activities that keep your body moving.
10. Heavy Drinking
One to two drinks per day can help keep your cholesterol level in check. However, excess alcohol will have an opposite impact. It may raise triglycerides due to the high sugar and calorie content of alcoholic drinks.
Furthermore, it can cause high blood pressure, heart failure and strokes.
A 2001 study published in Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research points out the connection between excess alcohol intake and increased risk of LDL cholesterol in middle-aged Japanese men.
If you drink, keep the amount in moderation.
Ways to lower your bad cholesterol
If you have any of these risk factors or already have high cholesterol, you need to take steps to lower your LDL and raise your HDL cholesterol. You just have to make some simple lifestyle changes.
However, if your cholesterol level is too high, you may need to take medication prescribed by your doctor to get your cholesterol back on track.
Here are the top 10 ways to lower your bad cholesterol level.
1. Say No to Trans Fat
When it comes to trans fats, simply avoid them as they can raise your LDL cholesterol while lowering your HDL level.
A 2010 study published in PLoS One highlights the negative effect of animal and industrial trans fatty acids on HDL and LDL levels. Furthermore, these unhealthy fats increase your risk of developing heart disease and strokes.
Avoid margarine, commercial baked goods, crackers, chips and other processed snacks as they often contain these unhealthy fats.
Also, you must avoid or limit your intake of saturated fats and dietary cholesterol, found in egg yolks, red meat, shrimp, lobster, high-fat cheeses, full-fat dairy products, butter and organ meats.
Eat more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which you can find in olive, canola, and safflower oils; salmon, tuna, trout and mackerel; seeds and nuts; avocados; and soybeans.
2. Opt for Plant-Based Protein
If you are at a high risk of having high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, opt for protein-rich plant foods instead of animal protein.
Plant-based protein sources are rich in nutrients and phytochemicals that help lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, blood sugar and insulin levels. It even reduces the risk of several cancers.
A 2005 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine journal emphasizes avoiding saturated fat and cholesterol and including nutrient-dense plant-based foods.
Some good sources of plant-based protein are legumes, lentils, peas, pinto beans, red beans, white beans, soybeans, nuts and seeds.