A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Taking the good with the bad: Understanding cholesterol

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A healthy diet is important in maintaining safe cholesterol levels.

The term “cholesterol” may conjure images of serious health issues, but there is also a good form of the waxy substance. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is the bad cholesterol, while high density lipoprotein (HDL) is the good stuff. Your body has both.

LDL vs. HDL

“When we measure cholesterol, we’re actually measuring the protein that binds to the cholesterol. HDL tends to pull cholesterol from inside the arteries so it doesn’t build up,” said Kelly Rasmussen, a Marshfield Clinic nurse practitioner in cardiology. “LDL is the cholesterol that tends to collect inside the artery walls.”

Some cholesterol occurs naturally within the body, and some occurs because of what we eat. Bad cholesterol is found in foods high in trans or saturated fats.

Promoting healthy cholesterol levels

Eating foods like oats, beans, vegetables, fish and certain fruits can help you reach healthier cholesterol levels, while smoking is bad for maintaining healthy cholesterol. Rasmussen also advises staying away from too much alcohol. She recommends accompanying a healthy diet with regular exercise if you’re looking to maintain your cholesterol at a healthy level or lower it.

“Exercising is really good at managing weight, which tends to manage cholesterol overall,” Rasmussen said. “Moderate exercise for 30 minutes per day, five days per week can help increase good cholesterol.”

Dangers of too much bad cholesterol

Rasmussen said too much bad cholesterol can lead to build up inside arteries in the brain, neck, heart, legs and throughout the body. When cholesterol builds up inside arteries, blood flow decreases, and risk for things like heart disease, heart attack and stroke increases.

Target numbers

Each person’s cholesterol is based on their genetic background and lifestyle choices. For patients without other complications, like diabetes or atherosclerosis, a good number for total cholesterol, HDL plus LDL, is less than 200, with HDL above 40 and LDL less than 135. For a person with a history of atherosclerotic disease, Rasmussen said she likes to see LDL cholesterol around 70.

Talk with your medical provider to determine your target cholesterol numbers.

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