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What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a substance found within our cells that helps with digestion, and helps to produce hormones and Vitamin D. Cholesterol can be found in most animal products like meat, milk, eggs, and cheese. However, your body synthesizes all of the cholesterol it needs, and, generally, is capable of maintaining the proper concentration of cholesterol in the body. HDL, LDL, VLDL are the three types of cholesterol; these types of cholesterol are capable of regulating themselves to ensure that the bad type of cholesterol does not get to a harmful level. Your body can only do so much, though, and if diet is not low in bad cholesterols and higher in good ones, then the risk of heart disease dramatically increases.

LDL Cholesterol

LDL cholesterol, or Low-Density Lipoprotein, is what is known as the ‘bad’ cholesterol. This type of cholesterol comes from saturated fats commonly found in fatty animal meats or certain cooking oils. LDL is the type of cholesterol that, in excess, combine with other materials in the arteries to form plaque along the walls.

LDL-rich Foods

Foods high in saturated fat are also rich in LDL cholesterol. Some of these foods include: fatty animal meats, some cooking oils (vegetable oils, palm oil, canola oil, etc.), butter and other shortening products, milk and dairy products, as well as processed and packaged foods. These foods are high in LDL, and, if they can be avoided or eaten in moderation, reduce the risk of heart disease.

HDL Cholesterol

A meal with many HDL-rich foods.
A meal with many HDL-rich foods.

HDL cholesterol, or High Density Lipoprotein, is what is known as the ‘good’ cholesterol. HDL helps to transport cholesterol to your liver for removal; specifically, it transports LDL cholesterol. If there is enough HDL, then HDL can help to ‘clean up’ any excess LDL in your arteries. However, if levels of LDL are higher than HDL levels, then there is too much LDL for the HDL to pick up; that is when the excess LDL builds up and creates plaque.

HDL-rich Foods

Foods that contain unsaturated fats usually also contain HDL cholesterol. These are foods like eggs, avocado, nuts, beans, legumes, olive oil, whole grains, fatty fish, and high fiber fruit. These foods will help to increase HDL levels, and, as a result, reduce the risk of heart disease.

VLDL Cholesterol

VLDL, or Very Low-Density Lipoprotein, is cholesterol that is synthesized by the liver. It differs from LDL and HDL as it is used to transport triglycerides rather than cholesterol. The levels of VLDL rise as triglycerides rise. Additionally, an excess of this type of cholesterol, much like LDL, contributes to plaque build-up in the arteries resulting in an increased risk for heart disease.

Trans Fats

Trans fats are a type of fat that is very detrimental to your health. Natural trans fats are found in small amounts in the products of some animals like meat or dairy products. However, there are artificial trans fats which are produced industrially when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils (hydrogenated oils). These hydrogenated oils can many times be found in fried food, but are also largely found in highly processed food. These trans fats raise the LDL levels and lower HDL levels which is all-around bad for your cholesterol. Consuming these types of fats greatly increase your risk of high cholesterol and subsequently heart disease.

Cholesterol and Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among Americans. Approximately, 25% of all deaths each year are heart disease-related, and 735,000 Americans suffer from a heart attack each year. High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease. High cholesterol leads to high blood pressure, which makes your heart work harder; this makes you more prone to coronary heart disease –which kills more than 370,000 people annually—as well as heart attacks, and heart failure. Therefore, by keeping cholesterol at a healthy level, you can keep your risk of heart disease low, and avoid the many conditions that come with it.

Cholesterol and Exercise

A man exercising with resistance bands.
A man exercising.

We all know that physical activity and exercise have broad and extensive health benefits. Cholesterol is no different; exercise can significantly reduce high cholesterol or help to maintain normal cholesterol levels. In fact, a 2013 study concluded that both aerobic exercise and resistance training significantly lower LDL levels and increase levels of HDL. This is yet another benefit that exercise has for our health, and it gives us another reason to go out and do something active. High cholesterol may increase your risk of heart disease, but exercise lowers your cholesterol and reduces your risk of heart disease across the board (not only because it lowers your cholesterol).

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