Can Someone Please Tell Me

“What’s cholesterol?” “Um, it’s bad for you, and it’s this thing that clogs your arteries?” That might get you partial credit (probably not). Just like calories, cholesterol is one of those elusive terms. We know what calories and cholesterol are, but defining them can be challenging.

image source: Purdue

So back to my first question: “What’s cholesterol?” If this was on a bio exam, the correct answer would most likely be: “a eukaryotic sterol that in higher animals is the precursor of bile acids and steroid hormones and a key constituent of cell membranes; synthesized by the liver and other tissues, but some is absorbed from dietary sources, with each kind transported in the plasma by specific lipoproteins” (Medical DictionaryGOT IT? OK GOOD.

NOT GOOD. NOT OK. Unless you’re a bio student, that definition is kind of useless. So here’s the what-does-it-really-mean-why-should-you-care explanation of cholesterol.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance, found in our bodies and many foods. It’s used in the production of hormones, cell membranes, and bile acids, which help digest food (Livestrong). Though our bodies need cholesterol to function properly, too much can be bad. Extra cholesterol can accumulate in the arteries and form cholesterol deposits, aka plaque. Over time, the plaque narrows the arteries, allowing less blood to pass through.

Atherosclerosis, which is the condition of cholesterol buildup, can lead to dangerous complications such as coronary heart disease (heart attack and angina), kidney disease, and stroke. If plaque completely blocks an artery carrying blood to the heart, then a heart attack occurs. It can also happen if an area of plaque ruptures and causes a clot in a coronary artery. Chest pain, aka angina, is caused by plaque that partially blocks a coronary artery, which reduces blood flow to the hear (CDC).

There is good cholesterol and then there’s also bad cholesterol.

image source: Cartoon Stock

  • Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol is the “bad” cholesterol. High levels can lead to buildup in the arteries and cause heart disease. Unfortunately, LDL cholesterol makes up the majority of the body’s total cholesterol.
  • High-density lipoproteins (HDL) cholesterol is the “good” cholesterol. It carries cholesterol back to the liver, which then flushes it from the body. HDL helps reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Here are some statistics from the CDC that will help illustrate the cholesterol problem in the United States:

  • Approximately one in every six adults—16.3% of the U.S. adult population—has high total cholesterol. The level defined as high total cholesterol is 240 mg/dL and above.
  • People with high total cholesterol have approximately twice the risk of heart disease as people with optimal levels. A desirable level is lower than 200 mg/dL.
  • More women than men have high cholesterol in the United States.

The most important thing you need to know about cholesterol is how to keep it at a normal level. A desirable level is lower than 200 mg/dL (Mayo Clinic). Follow these tips from the CDC:

  1. Get a blood test.
  2. Eat a healthy diet. Try to include high-fiber foods, fish, nuts, and olive oil into your daily meals (Mayo Clinic).
  3. Maintain a healthy weight.
  4. Exercise regularly.
  5. Don’t smoke.
  6. Treat high cholesterol

Try out these Low-Cholesterol Recipes from Food Network!


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