MYST 169: Reducing your Cholesterol (part 1)

All right, we are all trying to lose weight and get healthy. We use the scale to gauge our progress, as well as using the fit of our clothes as another marker of success.

We also may notice that your blood pressure drops. Maybe your diabetes becomes controlled. Maybe your strength and endurance show improvement.

But what about cholesterol? What is happening to that? Is it still building up in the blood vessels around your heart, putting you at risk of a heart attack? Is it starting to clog your carotid arteries, which could bring a stroke? Is it blocking arteries in your legs, causing pain when you walk?

You probably have no symptoms of a heart attack or stroke or even peripheral vascular disease. Not yet. But the problem is that when you have overt symptoms, the damage is being done and the risk is suddenly great.

What’s Normal?

Total cholesterol HDL cholesterol LDL cholesterol Triglycerides
Good Less than 200 40 or higher Less than 100 Less than 149
Borderline 200–239 n/a 130–159 150–199
High 240 or higher n/a 160 or higher 200 or higher
Low n/a less than 40 n/a n/a

Note: HDL over 40 is good, but studies suggest that HDL more than 60 acts in a cardio-protective fashion. Your HDL goal should be >60.

I’m not going to be pessimistic and assume it’s far beyond normal. Let’s assume that all of your cholesterol numbers are just at the beginning of high. Your total cholesterol is 240, your HDL is 40, your LDL is 160, and your triglycerides are 200. All those numbers are borderline high. Not bad. Not yet.

How can we change these numbers?

The way people process cholesterol differs. Some people appear to be more vulnerable to cholesterol-rich diets. Research is beginning to show that your genetic makeup – not diet – is the driving force behind cholesterol levels, says cardiologist Steven Nissen, MD. Of the Cleveland Clinic

The body creates cholesterol in amounts much larger than what you can eat, Dr. Nissen says. So avoiding foods that are high in cholesterol won’t affect your blood cholesterol levels very much.

“About 85 percent of the cholesterol in the circulation is manufactured by the body in the liver,” he says. “It isn’t coming directly from the cholesterol that you eat.”

Cholesterol isn’t evil

But to fully explain cholesterol, you need to realize that it’s also vital to your health and well-being. Although we measure cholesterol production in the blood, it’s found in every cell in the body. Cholesterol is a waxy, whitish-yellow fat and a crucial building block in cell membranes. It’s also used to make vitamin D, hormones (including testosterone and estrogen), and fat-dissolving bile acids. In fact, cholesterol production is so important that your liver and intestines make about 80% of the cholesterol you need to stay healthy. Only about 20% comes from the foods you eat.

If you eat only 200 to 300 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol a day (one egg yolk has about 200 mg), your liver will produce an additional 800 milligrams per day from raw materials such as fat, sugars, and proteins.

Since cholesterol is a fat, it can’t travel alone in the bloodstream. It would end up as useless globs (imagine bacon fat floating in a pot of water). To get around this problem, the body packages cholesterol and other lipids into minuscule protein-covered particles that mix easily with blood. These tiny particles, called lipoproteins (lipid plus protein), move cholesterol and other fats throughout the body.

Cholesterol and other lipids circulate in the bloodstream in several different forms. Of these, the one that gets the most attention is low-density lipoprotein— better known as LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. But lipoproteins come in a range of shapes and sizes, and each type has its own tasks. They also morph from one form into another. These are the five main types:

Triglycerides (fatty acids from your food) are made in the digestive system and so are influenced by what you eat.

Very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) particles also carry triglycerides to tissues. But they are made by the liver. As the body’s cells extract fatty acids from VLDLs, the particles turn into LDL particles.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) particles are even richer in pure cholesterol since most of the triglycerides and proteins they carried are gone. LDL is known as “bad” cholesterol because it delivers cholesterol to tissues and is strongly associated with the buildup of artery-clogging plaque.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) particles are called “good” cholesterol because they remove cholesterol from circulation and from artery walls and return it to the liver for excretion. These are also particles that have more protein than cholesterol, which is why they are able to gather the LDL and pull it back to the liver.

Photo via Unsplash, by Edgar Castrejon

Things outside of your control that also can affect cholesterol levels include:

Age and Gender. As women and men get older, their cholesterol levels rise. Before the age of menopause, women have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. After the age of menopause, women’s LDL levels tend to rise.

Heredity. Your genes partly determine how much cholesterol your body makes. High blood cholesterol can run in families.

These are things you can do something about:

Weight. Being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease. It also tends to increase your cholesterol. Losing weight can help lower your LDL and total cholesterol levels, as well as raise your HDL and lower your triglyceride levels.

Physical Activity. Not being physically active is a risk factor for heart disease. Regular physical activity can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels. It also helps you lose weight. You should aim to be physically active for 30 minutes on most, if not all, days.

Food. It used to be thought that dietary cholesterol is the primary cause of elevated blood cholesterol, and for some people who are genetically predisposed to that, it is a problem. However, most people are affected very little by the cholesterol in their food. The problem is the saturated fat food that you eat makes your blood cholesterol level rise. Saturated fat is the main problem. Reducing the amount of saturated fat in your diet helps lower your blood cholesterol level, while other foods can help pull cholesterol out of your body, and prevent cholesterol building blocks from being absorbed.

To lower total cholesterol:

  • Eliminate trans-fats and reduce saturated fats as much as possible.
  • Use oils high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats
  • Vegetables, especially brightly colored. Try to eat the color spectrum–the darker the color the healthier.
  • Reduce/avoid refined sugars and simple starches.

Great. We hear that all the time. But what specific foods should we add to our diet? What do we need to reduce or eliminate?

Come back next week for the specific foods you need to make sure are in prominent in your weekly menus.


Music composed and performed by Jason Shaw, courtesy of

Voiceover courtesy of Matt Young. Matt is a professional voiceover artist. If you have any need of voice-over work, for your podcast, radio spot, or whatever, you can reach Matt by a variety of methods. He is on LinkedIn. On Twitter. And Google+. Follow his Facebook page to learn how to better use social media. Matt was also my guest on MYST 54. Give his story a listen!

All images are Creative Common Zero.