We have all heard of the dangers associated with high cholesterol with the ever-growing obesity statistics in this day and age, greatly accelerated due to the ramifications caused by Covid-19, but what exactly is cholesterol, how is it harmful and how may one reduce it?
As weight loss specialists here at Plato Weight Management, I manage a lot of clients’ anxiety around the subject as it can be quite concerning when you hear that high levels of it can contribute to various diseases. Therefore, I will be answering all related queries in this blog post.
Today, we’ll talk about:
- What is cholesterol
- HDLs, LDLs and triglycerides
- How to reduce cholesterol and triglycerides
What is cholesterol
So, to begin with, what exactly is it?
Well, cholesterol is an oil-based substance found naturally in the blood. Since oil cannot dissolve in water and 92% of your blood is water, cholesterol has the potential to build up rather than just run straight through your arteries.
It comes from the body naturally as it’s produced by the liver, but it also comes from animal-derived products such as meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products.
We always hear bad things about it, but it is actually essential for maintaining good health. It has important natural functions when it comes to digesting foods, producing hormones, helping organs function properly and producing vitamin D.
Vitamin D is important for reducing the risk of flu and promoting healthy bones as it enhances the absorption of calcium, which helps prevent bone diseases such as osteoporosis.
Also, the glands that produce hormones in your body use the substance to make hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol.
So cholesterol can actually be beneficial. It only becomes a problem when the level of it is too high in the blood.
Levels of it, in terms of health, are categorized as follows:
- Normal: Below 150 mg/dL
- High: 150-499 mg/dL
- Very high: 500 mg/dL or greater
Cholesterol is tricky as it actually has no symptoms and a blood test is the only way to detect if you have it.
Now what may come as a surprise to you is that there are good and bad kinds of it.
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HDLs, LDLs, and Triglycerides
Cholesterol is carried around the blood by lipoproteins, consisting of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) that are your good cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) that are your bad cholesterol.
HDLs are the good versions because they pick up excess quantities of it in your blood and takes it back to your liver, where it’s broken down and removed from your body.
Since the substance only becomes a problem when it becomes too high in your blood, as we’ve mentioned, this is obviously hugely beneficial.
On the other hand, LDLs are the bad versions because they can invade your artery walls and cause atherosclerosis which is the buildup of fatty deposits in arteries. This restricts blood flow and can potentially lead to high blood pressure, stroke, cardiovascular disease and even premature death.
Unfortunately, LDLs are not the only lipid in the blood that affects your cardiovascular risk. Triglycerides are also a risk factor that circulates in your blood.
This is because triglycerides like cholesterol are not soluble within the blood.
And what is the difference between cholesterol and triglycerides?
Well, in contrast to cholesterol that produces vitamin D and certain hormones, triglycerides store unused calories from our food into our fat cells and subsequently provides our body with energy at a later time through hormones that will release them into your blood from your fat cells.
Suppose your LDL levels and/or your triglycerides are too high while your HDL levels are too low. In that case, you will generally have a condition called dyslipidemia which the American College of Sports Medicine indicates 30% of people in the United States to have (Riebe, Ehrman, Liguori, & Magal, 2018).
There are many different causes for dyslipidemia, but the most common cause is poor dietary and lifestyle choices. However, genetics often play a contributing role too.
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How to reduce cholesterol
So now that we’ve broken down what it is and its health risks, how do we reduce it?
Well, the first way we want to reduce the substance is by cutting back on cigarettes if you do, in fact, smoke. The reason why is because cigarettes actually make bad cholesterol stickier while also decreasing your good cholesterol levels, which, remember, is beneficial as it picks up excess quantities of it and removes it from your body. Subsequently, this will help us to reduce our bad cholesterol also.
The second way we can help our cholesterol levels is via our diet.
Now you might be thinking, “hey why don’t I just eat foods that have good cholesterol and not foods that have bad cholesterol?”.
Well, there aren’t separate food sources of good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, only certain foods that can help increase good cholesterol and decrease bad cholesterol within your body.
Bad fats such as trans fat have been shown to increase your bad cholesterol and decrease your good cholesterol, while even moderate alcohol use has been linked with higher levels of your bad cholesterol.
So by limiting these indulgences to occasionally, it will help us achieve healthier levels of cholesterol in your blood.
In addition, we want to increase good fats as they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can also help improve our good to bad cholesterol ratio.
Some examples of good fats would be salmon, herring, walnuts and almonds.
Further, we also want to increase your dietary fibre intake too.
It’s important to note that there are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble.
Both of these actually have good health benefits, but it is soluble fibre that helps to reduce your bad cholesterol levels, and soluble fibre would be found in foods like oats, fruits, beans and vegetables.
Now let’s talk about the third way you can reduce your cholesterol, which is through weight loss.
Losing as little as five to ten percent of your weight through exercise and diet can significantly improve your cholesterol levels and reduce bad cholesterol.
In addition, increasing exercise can help lower your levels of triglycerides too.
You can see benefits from exercise toward improving cholesterol with as little as 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Still, the ACSM recommends undertaking between 250-300 minutes of exercise per week for those with Dyslipidemia.
In addition, they note that cardiovascular exercise has been shown to have a better effect on Dyslipidemia than resistance training. However, some positive results may still be obtained by resistance training (Riebe, Ehrman, Liguori, & Magal, 2018).
A meta-analysis by Leon and Sanchez involving 4,700 people, for instance, found that, on average, 12 weeks of aerobic exercise resulted in an increase of good cholesterol by 4.6% alongside a decrease of bad cholesterol by 5% and triglycerides by 3.7% (LEON & SANCHEZ, 2001).
Additionally, even without changing dietary habits, exercise can still improve levels of the substance.
A study by O’Donovan et al. (2005) put 64 previously sedentary men in either a moderate-intensity exercise group or a high-intensity exercise group for 24 weeks while being instructed to maintain their current diets to check the impact on cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
After 24 weeks, it was found that the high-intensity exercise group had significant improvements in cholesterol and triglycerides (O’Donovan et al., 2005), but no significant difference was found in the moderate exercise group.
This indicates that HIIT training is very effective for cholesterol but shows that for those who are undertaking moderate-intensity exercise, like walking, it is important to eat a healthy diet also for improvements.
Although, we recommend improving both your diet and physical activity to achieve the best results.
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In conclusion, we need to focus on improving good cholesterol and reducing bad cholesterol to reduce risks for high blood pressure, stroke, cardiovascular disease and premature death through developing healthier dietary and lifestyle habits.
We recommend that no matter what your age or how healthy you feel, all adults should get their levels checked by their doctor every several years as, again, high levels of it usually have no symptoms. Your doctor will also check for levels of triglycerides which, as we’ve spoken about, is another element to look out for.
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LEON, A. S., & SANCHEZ, O. A. (2001). Response of blood lipids to exercise training alone or combined with dietary intervention. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33(Supplement). doi:10.1097/00005768-200106001-00021
O’Donovan, G., Owen, A., Bird, S. R., Kearney, E. M., Nevill, A. M., Jones, D. W., & Woolf-May, K. (2005). Changes in cardiorespiratory fitness and coronary heart disease risk Factors following 24 wk OF moderate- or high-intensity exercise of equal energy cost. Journal of Applied Physiology, 98(5), 1619-1625. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01310.2004
Riebe, D., Ehrman, J., Liguori, G., & Magal, M. (2018). ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription. (10th ed.). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.