Your heart’s health depends on your blood vessels’ health. When arteries become hardened or narrowed from fatty deposits, blood flow to the heart or brain becomes impaired, causing a heart attack or stroke.
A key factor in keeping your blood vessels healthy is how much cholesterol you have in your blood. Cholesterol is a waxy, fatlike substance used to make hormones and vitamin D and aid digestion. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs; however, most of us get plenty more—often too much—from the foods we eat.
When you have too much cholesterol in your blood, it builds up on the walls of arteries that feed your heart and brain. This buildup can thicken and harden into a plaque that narrows the artery, a condition called atherosclerosis. Blood clots may form at these plaques, blocking blood flow.
Small packages called lipoproteins carry cholesterol through the blood. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is known as “bad” cholesterol because it can build up in your arteries, increasing your heart disease risk. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is called “good” cholesterol because it carries cholesterol to your liver, which removes it from your body. Having high levels of HDL cholesterol actually lowers your heart disease risk.
Poor cholesterol levels don’t cause symptoms immediately. Unless you have your cholesterol tested, you won’t know how much buildup may already be underway. You should have your cholesterol checked at least once every five years, starting at age 20.
Although your body makes about 1,000 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol every day, you consume more through foods made from animals, especially egg yolks, meat, fish, seafood, poultry and whole-milk dairy. Foods high in saturated fats and trans fatty acids, such as meats, whole-milk dairy, stick margarine, shortening, fried foods and store-bought baked goods, also increase cholesterol. Foods from plant sources like fruits, vegetables, grains and seeds don’t contain cholesterol.
Many lifestyle factors affect your cholesterol levels.
To improve your cholesterol, you should:
- Limit your dietary cholesterol to less than 300 mg a day. Aim for less than 200 mg if you already have heart disease.
- Limit your intake of saturated fat and trans fatty acids. Use a polyunsaturated or monounsaturated cooking oil such as corn, canola or olive oil and avoid foods that list hydrogenated oil as an ingredient.