Many people in the civilised world have got high cholesterol. And while your doctor has probably recommended eating better, getting more exercise, and maybe even medication, you may be wondering if there's more you can do. You've heard the old saying that no news is good news? Well, it doesn't apply to cholesterol. Getting it checked on a regular basis is essential to your long-term good health. After all, high cholesterol has been linked to cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death. Knowing your level, and tracking it as you begin treatment, just makes sense.
In a nutshell, experts recommend that adults age 20 and over should have their cholesterol checked at least once every five years. You may require more frequent screening if you have certain risk factors for heart disease or if your test results are cause for concern. For those who have cholesterol within the normal range, knocking a few points off their readings can slow fatty buildup in the arteries and possibly reduce any buildup that's already there. The bottom line: In the pursuit of cholesterol control, knowing your numbers is a must.
Once you've been diagnosed with high cholesterol, your instinct may be to jump right into whatever treatment plan your doctor recommends. Unless your cholesterol has gone through the roof—which may require an immediate intervention—you're better off taking time to think through your situation and your treatment options. By exercising some control up front, you're more likely to develop a cholesterol management plan you can live with.
A good place to start? Begin with an assessment of your personal risk factors for heart disease beyond high cholesterol. Which ones are within your control? For example, you may not be able to change your age, gender, or family history, but you can improve your eating habits, get more exercise, and quit smoking. These are the sorts of lifestyle changes that should become part of your cholesterol management plan, no matter what other treatments you may choose.
Likewise, you'll want to learn as much as you can about cholesterol itself. Your body needs cholesterol to perform certain vital functions. In fact, lowering one type of cholesterol, HDL, can be bad for your heart. What's more, while many foods contain dietary cholesterol, most of the blame for elevated cholesterol levels rests squarely on the shoulders of saturated fat and trans fats.
Of course, you'll also want to educate yourself about the available treatment options. Conventional medicine has much to offer people with high cholesterol—but so do alternative therapies. Before you settle on a specific treatment or combination of treatments (in consultation with your doctor), you should know whether it's effective and safe and how soon you can expect to see results.
Try drop those extra kilos if you weigh more than you should, slimming down may produce a significant drop in your cholesterol level. Research suggests that being overweight disrupts the normal metabolism of dietary fat. So even though you may be eating less fat, you may not see a difference in your cholesterol profile until you unload the excesskilos.
In fact, shedding just 2 to 5 kilos may be enough to improve your cholesterol level. Just don't go the crash-dieting route. A slow but steady loss of ½ - 1 kg a week is healthiest and easiest to maintain. Since ½ kilo equals 3,500 calories, you could meet the ½ kg -per-week rate by eating 500 fewer calories per day, burning 500 more calories per day through exercise, or—the best option—a combination of the two.
Findings from the landmark Framingham Heart Study confirm that such modest weight loss is worth the effort, for reasons beyond cholesterol control. According to the study, taking off—and keeping off—just ½ - 1 kg a year may reduce your risk of high blood pressure by 25% and your risk of diabetes by 35%.
Incidentally, many of the lifestyle strategies that help rein in unruly cholesterol can also take off unwanted kilos, and vice versa. Be sure to consult your doctor before embarking on any weight loss program.
Start exercising. Whether your goal is to lower your cholesterol, shed some extra kilos, or both, regular exercise can help you get there. I am not talking about high-intensity workouts, either, though boosting your intensity can elevate HDL cholesterol. Walking and other, more moderate physical activities are good for your heart, too. In fact, one study suggests that walks of any duration may help reduce heart disease risk. For the study, British researchers recruited 56 sedentary people between ages 40 and 66, then divided them into three groups. One group took a long, 20- to 40-minute walk each day; another group walked for 10 to 15 minutes twice a day; and the third group took 5- to 10-minute walks three times a day. Over the 18 weeks of the study, the once-a-day walkers saw their LDL cholesterol drop by 8.3%; the twice-a-day walkers by 5.8%. The researchers concluded that walks of any length can be beneficial, as long as they're done at a moderate intensity—that is, a brisk pace at which you can still carry on a conversation.
If you're not into walking, any form of aerobic exercise—running, bicycling, swimming, whatever gets your heart pumping—can help lower heart disease risk. Whichever activity you choose, be sure you're doing it for 30 minutes at least 5 days a week.
If you've been relatively inactive, check with your doctor before launching any exercise regimen. Your doctor may be able to help you choose an activity that suits your current fitness level.
Get to know good fats as these affect your cholesterol. Peanut butter, avocados, olive and canola oils, and most nuts are high in monounsaturated fat. Research has shown that monounsaturated fat can help lower LDL and triglycerides (another type of blood fat) while raising HDL. It's a much healthier choice than saturated fat, which is found primarily in animal products—meats, butter, full-fat milk and cheese. Saturated fat can elevate your cholesterol level more than anything else you might eat.
Also included in the good fats category are omega-3 fatty acids, found in abundance in fish such as mackerel, albacore tuna, and salmon. The omega-3s appear to lower levels of VLDL (very low density lipoprotein) and triglycerides. Studies have shown that when people cut back on saturated fat and trans fats (found in manufactured biscuits and cakes) and consumed more fish oil, their LDL dropped. I recommend eating at least 2 servings of baked or grilled fish a week. That said, omega-3s are not a magic bullet. One study showed that when people consumed more fish oil without altering their saturated fat intake, their LDL levels stayed the same or increased. In order to reap the cholesterol-cutting benefits of omega-3s, you need to limit your saturated fat consumption.
Befriend fibre. It's no secret that in general, vegetarians have lower cholesterol levels and lower heart disease rates than meat eaters. That's in part because vegetarians consume so much fibre, which is found abundantly in plant foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. Fibre comes in two forms: soluble and insoluble. The soluble kind appears to pack the greatest cholesterol-lowering punch. Research has shown that consuming about 15 g of soluble fibre a day can lower LDL cholesterol by 5 to 10%. It works by binding with cholesterol-containing bile acids in the intestines and escorting them out of the body. A specific kind of soluble fibre, pectin, not only lowers cholesterol but also helps curb overeating by slowing the digestive process. Munch on apples and other pectin-rich fruits, and you're likely to eat less, lose weight, and rein in your cholesterol.
Coincidentally, foods high in fibre tend to be low in saturated fat and cholesterol, as well as calories. Just make sure you don't top your fibre-rich whole grain toast with a huge dollop of butter.
Prior to going on cholesterol medication make lifestyle changes to ensure whether these are sufficient to lower your cholesterol.
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