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Cholesterol 101

written by Vidya Sury April 4, 2016
Cholesterol 101 Vidya Sury

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Busy lifestyles and erratic eating habits present the risk of lifestyle diseases such as high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and weight gain, all of which can lead to heart disease. Here are some basic facts related to cholesterol that can help us make healthy living choices.

But first, what is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy fatty substance generated by the liver and present in every cell in our body. It is essential for our body to function efficiently. We also consume cholesterol from the food we eat.

Why you should worry about cholesterol

As with anything in life, too much cholesterol puts you at a higher risk of cardio vascular diseases. The excess cholesterol builds up in the walls of our arteries that transport blood to the heart. Over time, this narrows the arteries preventing normal flow of blood and oxygen to the heart. When this happens we experience chest pain which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. If you live with type 2 diabetes, you definitely have to keep cholesterol in control.

What is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol?

Good cholesterol or HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol  eliminates bad cholesterol or LDL (low density lipoprotein) from your blood, preventing it from building up in your arteries. This is why, when you test for cholesterol, you will get a total cholesterol test so that you can check your HDL and LDL.

So how much cholesterol is too much?

Your numbers must preferably below 200 mg/dL. If it is between 200-239, it is borderline high and 240 and above is high, when you need to take action.

If your LDL is 190 or more, it puts you at risk for heart attack since it clogs up your arteries. Since HDL protects against heart disease, the higher the number the better. HDL should be 60 or more and anything less than 40 is not good.

Of course, while considering your cholesterol levels, your doctor will take into account your age, your lifestyle habits (if you smoke) and your blood pressure levels before determining your level of risk. Lifestyle changes can often help reduce cholesterol levels. If your triglyceride levels are borderline high at 150-199 or high at 200 and more, you may need focused treatment.

When you lower your total cholesterol with high HDL and low LDL, your risk for heart disease is lower.

What causes cholesterol levels to rise?

Usually, diet and lifestyle are the culprits. Foods like red meat, whole milk dairy, some types of fish and egg yolk can raise cholesterol levels. If you are overweight, that’s another risk of increasing bad cholesterol and lowering good cholesterol.  Women who go through menopause also experience higher bad cholesterol levels.

How to lower your cholesterol levels?

Your best bet is lifestyle changes – after all, living healthy has many more long term benefits and keeps you disease-free. Here are some things you can do right away:


  • Eat foods with less saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Read labels when you buy food
  • Prefer broiled, baked, roasted and poached rather than fried
  • Load up on fruits and vegetables every day
  • Go for whole grains when you eat cereals, bread, rice and pasta


  • Get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day
  • If you are overweight, work on losing extra weight

100 Reasons To Make Exercise A Habit


  • Stop smoking
  • Drink alcohol in moderation
  • Take your medication regularly as prescribed by your physician

Does low cholesterol on a product label mean low fat?

No. Many low cholesterol foods contain unhealthy saturated fats. Also, some unsaturated fats such as vegetable oil can be high calorie, which is not good. Aim for a total fat consumption of 20-30% in your daily diet.

8 natural ways to lower cholesterol

When is a good time to get cholesterol checked? 

Cholesterol build up in the arteries happens over a period of time, so getting regular health checks is a good idea. A good guideline to follow is to start when you are 20 years old and check every 5 years. If you are diagnosed with high cholesterol and the reason is genetic, make sure your children tested as well.   

Just remember, even if you are on medication to lower cholesterol, you still need to make diet and lifestyle changes  to bring it down.

Here are some quick diet tips to lower cholesterol

  • Practice portion control

Forget large meals that make you put on weight and raise your cholesterol. Use your palm as a good measure of one serving.

  • Eat heart healthy food

Fill your plate with fruits and veggies – and make it five servings a day to keep bad cholesterol in check. This helps you eat more fiber, fewer fatty foods and maintain healthy weight, while keeping blood pressure balanced.

  • Go for whole grains

Opt for oatmeal and other whole grain cereal that contain fiber and complex carbohydrates to keep your fuller longer.

  • Snack healthy

Prefer a handful of plain unsalted nuts instead of fries and baked products.

  • Use unsaturated fats

Choose healthy unsaturated fats such as canola, olive, and safflower oils to help lower cholesterol  levels and raise good cholesterol.  Avoid saturated fats like butter and palm oil and trans fats that raise LDL cholesterol. By the way, good fats have calories, so keep track of how much you eat.

  • Eat more beans, less potatoes

Carbs give us energy but only some carbs are good.  Beans and whole grains are fiber rich, cause slow blood sugar rise and help  lower cholesterol while keeping you feeling full longer. Carbs found in white bread, white potatoes, white rice, and pastries, raise blood sugar levels quickly, and you end up feeling hungry sooner, which may make you overeat.  Not good if you are trying to manage weight.

  • Be active

At least 30 minutes of activity every day is good. Walk if you prefer not to run. Look to activities like gardening, dancing, or walking your dog to mix it up and make it interesting. House work and taking the stairs also works

  • Manage stress

Chronic stress raises blood pressure, which means high cholesterol levels and heart disease.  Lower your stress levels with relaxation exercises, meditation, or biofeedback. Do breathing exercises.

Living healthy is naturally a lifelong process. Make healthy choices and follow your doctor’s advice to stay healthy.

Check out this article on top foods to lower your cholesterol numbers

Live healthy, stay healthy!

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