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Cholesterol: Know Your Numbers

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FishThe saying “You are what you eat” is true in many ways. A diet high in certain fats may lead to heart disease. Eating healthy and knowing cholesterol levels can help keep the heart healthy.

Video Overview: Cholesterol: Know Your Numbers

While plenty of top restaurants and food magazines tout the best burgers, rich pates and buttery treats like the “cronut” — a cross between a croissant and a donut — the fact is, many savory treats are high in saturated fat and may elevate the “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins, or LDL) in the body. Too much LDL cholesterol in the blood increases the risk for heart disease and stroke.

September is Cholesterol Education Month, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is encouraging people to get screened for LDL, and know the actions they can take to help lower and prevent high LDL.

"Eat healthy and exercise to help lower cholesterol."

About one-third of American adults have high LDL cholesterol levels, but only a third of those people have the condition under control, according to the CDC .

The problem with detecting high LDL cholesterol levels is that there are usually no symptoms. If you don’t have your numbers checked with a simple blood test, you may not know if you are at risk.

The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that all adults have their cholesterol levels checked at least once every five years.

What Is Cholesterol?

Not all cholesterol is unhealthy. The body actually needs this waxy, fat-like substance to help make cell membranes, certain hormones, vitamin D and substances that help digest foods.

When it comes to cholesterol, though, there is the “good” and the “bad.” In medical terms, the good cholesterol is called HDL (high-density lipoprotein). HDL takes cholesterol away from your arteries and delivers it to the liver, where it is removed from the body. Higher levels of HDL may offer protection from heart disease.

With too much LDL in the blood, cholesterol can build up in the arteries. Together with fat, calcium and other substances, cholesterol may form plaque in the blood vessels, which blocks blood flow. This condition is called atherosclerosis, and limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart. The condition can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

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Steps to Fight Cholesterol

To prevent or lower LDL cholesterol (and, in most cases, increase HDL), the CDC recommends the following:

Eat healthy. Steer clear of saturated fats and trans fats, which tend to raise LDL levels. The majority of saturated fats comes from meat and dairy products such as hamburgers, bacon, butter and cheese. Deep fried foods, packaged foods, frozen foods, baked goods, chips, crackers, cookies and candies are among the top culprits that may have trans fats.

Eating polyunsaturated fat can actually lower blood cholesterol levels. Many types of fish, such as salmon, trout and herring, are rich in this fat and high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are heart-healthy. The American Heart Association also suggests eating fish at least twice a week. Safflower oil, seeds and butter are also top sources of polyunsaturated fat.

Fiber (found in oatmeal and oat bran, for example) may also lower LDL cholesterol.

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Get physical. Exercise can help lower cholesterol. The Surgeon General advises that adults engage in moderate-intensity physical activity for two and a half hours every week.

Keep a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese may push LDL cholesterol levels higher, while losing weight can keep them low.

Don’t smoke. If you smoke, quit as soon as possible.

Take necessary medication if prescribed. Follow a doctor’s instructions about treatment to control cholesterol.

For more information about cholesterol and how to prevent high cholesterol or keep it in check, visit the website for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and download "Your Guide to Lowering Your Cholesterol with TLC."

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