Cholesterol 101

If all that talk about "good" and "bad" cholesterol is confusing, you're not alone. One thing is certain, changing your diet and exercising regularly can help improve your cholesterol for the better.

What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat that helps your body in various ways. In order to do its job, cholesterol must travel through your bloodstream, which is mostly water. Since water and fat do not mix (yes, just like in homemade salad dressings), the body creates capsules called lipoproteins that transport cholesterol throughout the body.

There are different types of lipoproteins, two of which are LDL and HDL. LDL (low density lipoprotein) is known as the "bad" or "lousy" cholesterol since it clogs your arteries. HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is known as the "good" or "healthy" cholesterol that pulls the LDL from your artery walls "unclogging" them.

What about the numbers?

Don't worry if you don't know the exact numbers, lab reports print out the normal ranges for all tests. Below is what the National Institute of Health considers "normal" verses "at risk" for heart disease.

Normal vs. At risk
Total Cholesterol 200 mg/dL or lower vs. Over 240 mg/dL
LDL 129 mg/dl or lower vs. 190 mg/dL or higher
HDL 60 mg/dL or higher vs. Below 40 mg/dL

Which foods contain cholesterol?
Cholesterol containing foods can be part of a healthy diet. Cholesterol is found in animal products like meat, chicken, butter, and whole fat dairy products. Foods that contain saturated fat influence your LDL ("bad") cholesterol the most. Saturated fats are found in foods like whole dairy products, butter, beef, chicken skin, and coconut oil. Palm oil, typically found in processed foods, also contains saturated fat.

What can help lower cholesterol?
To reduce cholesterol levels use a combination of diet and exercise. The goal is to have LDL stay low or go down and HDL to stay high or go up. Choose lean meats, poultry, fish, fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy, whole grains and healthier unsaturated fats from olive or canola oils. These foods contain little or no cholesterol and are lower in saturated fat. So the next time you see a package of dried fruit or nuts with a label announcing "Cholesterol Free," don't be that impressed; these foods are naturally free of cholesterol.

Research supports that soluble fiber can also help lower LDL cholesterol. Good sources include fruits, some root vegetables, oats, and barley. There is also new research to support that plant based materials called sterols may help lower cholesterol when consumed as part of a low cholesterol diet. Plant sterols are found in some vegetable oils, avocados, and are also added to some spreads and yogurt products.