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Cholesterol and foods to enjoy

Does talk about cholesterol, HDL, LDL and triglycerides make your head spin?

If so, you’re not alone, even though millions of Americans are dealing with unhealthy cholesterol numbers that put them more at risk for heart disease and stroke.

Let’s do our best to simplify the topic of cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance created by your liver. Your diet plays a role (about 25%), yet high cholesterol is complex and involves your genetics, lifestyle and living environment. So, while it can help, many times it’s not as simple as cutting out bacon, eggs and red meat to lower your cholesterol.

Having healthy cholesterol levels is a tricky balance. Too much cholesterol wreaks havoc on your health, but too little of it has the same effect by impacting other important body functions. Cholesterol is responsible for maintaining healthy cell membranes in the brain and throughout the body. It’s also necessary for hormone production such as estrogen, testosterone, DHEA, adrenaline, vitamin D and cortisol. Living a highly stressed life? Having low cholesterol won’t help you manage it.

LDL is the type of cholesterol that is typically referred to as “bad cholesterol” because if it’s too high, you’re more likely have inflammation that can result in a narrowing and hardening of the arteries. This can, in turn, affect your heart function and health. However, don’t forget that it’s LDL that is essential for the healthy cells and hormone production I mentioned earlier.

To improve LDL cholesterol, focus on foods high in omega 3 fatty acids such as wild-caught salmon, mackerel, herring, cod liver oil, oysters, sardines, flaxseed, chia seed and walnuts. It’s these foods that help you balance out your saturated fat from animal protein from red meat, pork, eggs and dairy. Also, focusing on lowering your hydrogenated oils and trans fats found in fast food and products you purchase such as vegetable oils, canola oil and soybean oil can usually help make a huge improvement in LDL cholesterol.

HDL, on the other hand, is celebrated as the “good cholesterol” because it helps lower LDL cholesterol when it’s too high. The American Heart Association recommends levels between 40 to 60 mg/dl, with above 60 mg/dl to be optimal.

Nutrition suggestions to improve HDL cholesterol are not so much foods to be eating, but more based on your lifestyle. Exercising and maintaining moderate alcohol consumption are two great ways to improve HDL cholesterol. Red wine in moderation is superior to other types of alcohol in providing slight increases in HDL cholesterol. Exercise or moving your body daily is also a huge contributor to increasing your HDL cholesterol. Work to get in that daily 30-minute walk.

Triglycerides are another type of fat that functions differently to cholesterol.

When you eat more calories than your body can use, it converts those calories into triglycerides and stores them in your fat cells as a source of energy. However, if you regularly eat more calories than your body can use, your triglyceride levels can elevate and put you at a higher risk for heart disease and stroke. To improve triglycerides, eat smaller portions, lower your processed food intake and reduce your carbohydrate foods.

When it comes to cholesterol, it’s all about a healthy balance that supports your body instead of damaging it. Remember, it’s not as simple as cutting out high-fat foods. It’s a much more delicate balance of the foods you eat, genetics and your overall lifestyle choices.

Fran Sutherlin is a local registered dietitian, specializing in using digestive wellness to prevent or manage chronic disease. She has a master’s degree in nutrition, is a personal health coach, speaker and owner of Sustainable Nutrition. She can be reached at (970) 444-2122 or fran@fransutherlin.com.