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Heart Health Part 3: Cholesterol

heart health and cholesterol

Heart Health Part 3: Cholesterol

Table of Contents

What is Cholesterol?

Why does Cholesterol Matter?

Typical Cholesterol Targets?

What are the Symptoms of High Cholesterol?

What Affects My Cholesterol?

What are the Risks of Abnormal Cholesterol Levels?

What Can I do to Meet My Target Cholesterol Levels?

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body needs to build cells and make vitamins and other hormones. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need, and we get additional cholesterol from food – meat, poultry, and dairy.

Why Does Cholesterol Matter?

High cholesterol is associated with higher risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease and stroke.

Typical Target Cholesterol Levels


  • Total Cholesterol
    • The sum of your blood’s cholesterol content. HDL + LDL + 20% Triglycerides = Total Cholesterol.
  • HDL = High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol
    • “Good” cholesterol that helps carry away LDL cholesterol, which keeps arteries open and blood flowing more freely.
  • LDL = Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol
    • “Bad” cholesterol that causes buildup of fatty deposits (plaques) in arteries, reducing blood flow. If a plaque ruptures, it can cause a heart attack or stroke.
  • Triglycerides
    • A type of fat found in the blood. Your body converts unneeded calories into triglycerides and stores them in fat cells. Factors that contribute to higher triglyceride levels:
      • Being overweight or obese
      • Insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome
      • Diabetes mellitus, especially with poor glucose control
      • Alcohol consumption, especially from processed foods
      • High saturated fat intake
      • Hypothyroidism
      • Chronic kidney disease
      • Physical inactivity
      • Pregnancy (especially third trimester)
      • Inflammatory diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus)

What are the Symptoms of High Cholesterol?

Most people don’t realize they have high cholesterol until they have a heart attack or stroke. It’s important to regularly have your healthcare provider test your cholesterol.

What Affects My Cholesterol?

While we cannot change or control all factors related to high blood pressure, making some simple lifestyle changes can help lower your blood pressure and can help reduce your risk for related complications.

Factors that we can control:

  • Physical inactivity
  • Diet
  • Being obese and overweight
  • Smoking cigarettes and exposure to tobacco
  • Diabetes

Factors that we should be aware of but can’t really control:

  • Family history of high cholesterol
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Aging
  • Gender

What are the Risks of Abnormal Cholesterol Levels?

Too much LDL or not enough HDL increases the risk of cholesterol buildup in the inner walls of arteries that feed the heart and brain. If a blood clot forms and blocks in a narrowed artery, you could have a heart attack or stroke.

What Can I do to Meet My Target Cholesterol Levels?

Diet and regular physical activity are important in keeping cholesterol within your target limits. Consult your healthcare provider for guidance on a meal plan that takes any current health conditions you may have into consideration and works best for you.

Eat These

Foods low in saturated and trans fats such as.

  • A variety of fruits and vegetables
  • A variety of whole grain foods such as whole-grain bread, cereal, pasta, and brown rice. At least half of the servings should be whole grains.
  • Fat-free, 1%, and low-fat milk products.
  • Skinless poultry and lean meats. Look for “loin” and “round” cuts of red meat and pork as those usually have the least amount of fat.
  • Fatty fish – salmon, trout, albacore tuna, sardines, etc. Recommended 8oz of non-fried fish each week.
  • Unsalted nuts, seeds, and legumes (dried beans or peas)
  • Non-tropical vegetable oils like canola, corn, olive, or safflower oils

Limit These

  • Foods with a lot of salt (sodium)
  • Sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Red meats and untrimmed fatty meats
  • Processed meats (bologna, salami, and sausage)
  • Full-fat dairy products – whole milk, cream, ice cream, butter, and cheese
  • Baked goods made with saturated and trans fats – donuts, cakes, and cookies
  • Foods with “hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients list
  • Saturated oils – coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil, etc.
  • Solid fats – shortening, stick margarine, lard, etc.
  • Fried foods

Physical Activity Recommendations for Adults

  • Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both per week
  • Moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least 2 days per week
  • Move more throughout the day. Light-intensity activity can help offset some risks of being sedentary.
  • Gradually increase intensity and overall amount of activity time

For more physical activities ideas, check out “Take a Break! The Long-Term Benefits of Physical Activity.”

Consult your healthcare provider if you have concerns about your cholesterol. Your healthcare provider should be able to help you determine what your cholesterol targets should be and how to reach them.

This blog post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any conditions or illnesses or act as a substitute for professional medical advice.

Back to Top

  1. CDC. Cholesterol: About Cholesterol.
  2. American Heart Association. What Your Cholesterol Levels Mean.
  3. Mayo Clinic. High Cholesterol: Overview.
  4. Adult Treatment Panel III’s National Cholesterol Education Program

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