What To Do About Your Cholesterol

Yes, regardless of your age, you should probably address it.

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If you’re like most young-ish, fit-ish, health-oriented (ish) people, you probably don’t think much about your cholesterol. That’s filed under “Later” along with deep wrinkles, cataracts, and reverse mortgages (subfolder: “Scary as hell”).

However your cholesterol levels today can have a direct impact on what your health (and life) look like a few decades from now.

Why do we need this stupid stuff, anyway?

Cholesterol is totally demonized because of its link to heart disease and stroke, but it’s actually super necessary for health.

A waxy substance produced by the liver, cholesterol is used to produce vitamin D (which helps you absorb nutrients including calcium and iron) and certain hormones responsible for metabolic and reproductive functions (yup, no cholesterol equals no testosterone, fellas).

Often, when your cholesterol is measured, you'll also get a report of your high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, levels and your low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, levels.

HDL is thought to mop up excess cholesterol and bring it to the liver for removal from the body. That's why it's often categorized as “good.” While LDL is thought to bring cholesterol from the liver to the rest of the body (and clog arteries in the process). That's why it’s often called “bad.”

Too much of a good thing

Many things affect your risk for developing cardiovascular disease (CVD), including blood pressure, body weight, how active you are, and whether you smoke.

Another factor that happens to be at the top of the list: elevated cholesterol.

What’s “elevated”?

According to epidemiological studies, a level of 210 mg of cholesterol per deciliter of blood means there’s a 50/50 chance that clogged arteries will kill you before your time. Going up to 260 mg/dL may incease your risk of death from CVD by 500 percent.

Many experts consider 150 mg/dL to be optimal, although The American Heart Association touts 180 as the magic number, and the National Institutes of Health says anything under 200 is “desirable.”

You probably have a cholesterol problem

Remember that scary stat about having a 50/50 chance of dying? Well, 210 mg/dL is the average cholesterol level in the developed world.

But isn’t this just part of getting older?

No. Many people — especially in Asia, Africa, and South America — enjoy cholesterol levels of 150 mg/dL or less. In those regions, heart disease is much less common.

And doing something about your cholesterol now can make a real difference.

A study released this year looked at the cholesterol levels people had in their 30s and 40s, and then examined their heart disease risk at age 55.

Just getting older meant their risk of CVD went up by 4.4 percent.

But those who had high cholesterol for up to 10 years in young adulthood saw their risk for CVD increase by 8 percent.

And people who let their cholesterol stay elevated for 11 to 20 years bumped their risk by close to 17 percent.

So, how do you lower your cholesterol?

Sure, you can spend up to $150 a month on cholesterol-lowering drugs. That’ll reduce your LDL cholesterol count by about a quarter.

And although supplements (red rice yeast extract, omega-3, Niacin, L-carnitine, plant sterols/stanols) may help, diet and lifestyle changes are better. Chat with your doctor before you empty your pockets at the vitamin store.

Eating for optimal cholesterol does take work. But it has huge advantages.

Your cholesterol-lowering game plan, in order of priority:

#1: Get and stay lean
Body fat goes down, cholesterol goes down, and so do your risk factors. I can't emphasize this enough. If you cholesterol and body weight / fat aren't where they should be, here's your top priority.

#2: Eat 10 servings of vegetables and fruits each day
These contain countless substances with cholesterol-lowering properties. Really going for it? Get 80 percent of your diet from veggies, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds. Then add animal proteins and minimally processed grains.

#3: Eat 1 serving of whole, minimally processed grains each day
This may lower your risk of clogged arteries by 30 percent.

#4: Eat 1 cup of legumes each day
They’re rich in fiber, which binds to cholesterol in the digestive tract.

#5: Eat 1/3 cup of nuts and seeds each day
They contain healthy fats, which lower LDL and raise HDL.

#6: Focus on omega-3s
Several large clinical studies found that these fats, present in nuts and fish like salmon, reduce LDL. Bonus: by eating more omega-3s, you'll have a better balance of fat in your diet, leading to many other health and cognitive benefits.

#7: Exercise at least 5 hours per week
It’s one of the few ways to boost HDL. (Here’s how to find time to work out.) Plus it'll help with weight / fat loss. If you're not exercising now, you can build up to this slowly, over time.

#8: Eat herbs and spices
They’re rich in antioxidants, which may help prevent plaque buildup. Ginger can increase circulation, and curcumin can block cholesterol uptake in the gut. Flavonoid-rich chocolate can decrease LDL, increase HDL, and reduce platelet stickiness.

#9: Limit processed / fried foods
These often contain trans fats — one of the fastest ways to let your blood fats out of control.

#10: Drink at least 4 cups of tea each day
It can help lower cholesterol, reduce plaque in the arteries, and improve blood vessel function.

In the end, if your body weight, cholesterol levels, and other risk factors are high, these steps will go a  long way toward helping you improve the way you look, feel, and perform.

Just remember that you don't have to do them all at once. They're listed in order of priority so you can choose which steps are most realistic and doable for you. You can always add more over time.

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Want some help finding the best eating, exercise, and lifestyle advice for you? Download this free guide: Paleo, vegan, intermittent fasting...Here's how to choose the best diet for you.

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And for more about Dr. John Berardi, including links to his latest men's health articles, click here.

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