It’s National Cholesterol Education Month

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Before biting into that juicy steak, take a moment to think about your cholesterol level. Is it high?

High cholesterol usually has no symptoms but can increase the risk of heart disease. The month of September has been designated as National Cholesterol Education Month. It’s the ideal time to have your levels checked and then take steps to bring your levels down if necessary.

What is cholesterol, anyway? Cholesterol is a waxy substance that circulates in the blood. It is found in animal foods including butter, meat, cheese and eggs. In addition to the amount absorbed from food, bloods levels also reflect the amount that is made by the body itself.

There are two main types of cholesterol that are easily measured with a blood test: LDL, the bad cholesterol, and HDL, the good cholesterol. LDL has a bad reputation because it tends to stick to blood vessel walls and block the flow of blood. HDL is the good guy because it works to keep the vessels clean by getting rid of LDL.

The American Heart Association recommends that total cholesterol be less than 200 mg/dl. HDL levels above 50mg/dl for women and above 40mg/dl for men lessen heart disease risk. LDL levels can vary depending on each individual’s health situation. In general, optimal levels are below 100mg/dl.

If cholesterol levels measure higher than recommended, Mayo Clinic recommends several lifestyle steps that can help bring the levels down.

Make a goal to lose weight. Being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease. It also tends to increase your cholesterol. Losing as little as 10 percent of one’s body weight can help bring those numbers down. It can help lower your LDL and total cholesterol levels, as well as raise your HDL and lower your triglyceride levels.

Exercise every day or at least most days of the week. Exercise itself can help reduce cholesterol and increase the HDL which will further help decrease the risk of heart disease. Work up to 30 minutes of exercise each day.

Eat foods that are good for the heart. Choose fewer animal foods and substitute fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. The goal here is to reduce saturated fat, a substance that can raise total cholesterol and LDL. When you feel you must have red meat, choose lean cuts such as round or loin. Select low-fat or fat-free dairy items instead of full-fat varieties. Stop eating foods with trans fats. These include store-bought baked items and snacks. Add omega-3 fats to your diet with walnuts, flax meal, salmon, and sardines.

Things you cannot do anything about also can affect cholesterol levels. These include:

Age and gender. As women and men get older, their cholesterol levels rise. Before the age of menopause, women have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. After the age of menopause, women’s LDL levels tend to rise.

Heredity. Your genes partly determine how much cholesterol your body makes. High blood cholesterol can run in families.

Be sure to get your cholesterol checked this month and get on the road to good health.

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