Cholesterol is essential in the body, as it is a component of cell membranes and is involved in many functions in the body. However, an excess of cholesterol in the body can have devastating consequences.

Hypercholesterolemia, high cholesterol, is a condition in which blood cholesterol levels are elevated above normal. Your body makes enough cholesterol so that you do not really need to obtain any in your diet. Cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat consumed from foods all raise cholesterol levels in the body; because of this, the American Heart Association recommends that all should be limited.

Elevated amounts of cholesterol in the blood can cause the formation of plaque, which leads to atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a condition where the build up of plaque in the blood results in this plaque sticking to the arteries, which causes a narrowing and hardening of the arteries. When arteries become hardened and narrow, blood is not able to travel as easily through them; therefore, blood flow is restricted to the heart. Over time, this restriction in blood flow leads to heart disease, stroke, and/or heart attack.

Because of the severity of high cholesterol, it is important to get your cholesterol checked regularly. There are no signs and symptoms that develop from having high cholesterol that may alert you that you have it; only a blood test can confirm high cholesterol. Risk factors for hypercholesterolemia include: being overweight, smoking, consuming diets high in saturated and trans fat, having a family history of it, and being physically inactive. Blood tests measuring cholesterol levels are fast, relatively painless, and could save your life!

Understanding what your cholesterol levels mean is important in determining if you are at risk for heart disease or other heart conditions. Cholesterol is made up of two main types of cholesterol, which are HDL (good) cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol. It is desirable to have your good cholesterol, HDL, high and your bad cholesterol, LDL, low. Normal cholesterol levels are said to exist when your total cholesterol is less than 200 mg/dl. It is ideal to have LDL cholesterol levels of no more than 129 mg/dl and HDL cholesterol levels above 60 mg/dl. An individual with hypercholesterolemia is usually found to have high levels of LDL and low levels of HDL. High cholesterol is diagnosed when total cholesterol levels are 240 mg/dl or higher. LDL levels are considered to be high if levels are 160 mg/dl or higher and HDL levels are considered to be low if women have levels of less than 50 mg/dl or men have levels of less than 40 mg/dl. Your goal for healthy cholesterol levels should be to have high HDL levels, while having low levels of LDL and total cholesterol. HDL levels of more than 60 mg/dl are said to have added protection against heart disease.

However, HDL and LDL levels are not the only players in cholesterol levels. Triglyceride levels also play a role in cholesterol levels and risk for heart disease. Risk factors for heightened triglyceride levels are often the same as those for hypercholesteremia. Optimal triglyceride levels are below 150 mg/dl, while 200-499 mg/dl are considered to be high.

To avoid or decrease high cholesterol levels, it is important to follow a heart healthy diet. A heart healthy diet focuses on consuming lean meats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish, while avoiding foods high in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol. Nutrition labels on food products will indicate if a food has saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol; therefore, it is important to read your labels! Limiting cholesterol to no more than 300 mg daily, saturated fat to no more than 10% of your total daily caloric intake, and trans fat to no more than 1% of your total daily caloric intake will put you on track to having a heart healthy diet! Think of your heart when making food choices and you will be sure to live a longer, healthier, happier life.


American Heart Association


University of Maryland Medical Center

U.S. National Library of Medicine



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