Know your numbers: make healthy changes

Angie Stewart

Angie Stewart

If it has been a while since your last blood cholesterol test, this is a great month to have your cholesterol levels checked, as September is National Cholesterol Education Month. This also is a great time to learn why it is important to know your cholesterol numbers, what the numbers mean, and what you can do to make a difference in your cholesterol profile. More than 65 million Americans have high blood cholesterol, and unfortunately, some people have high cholesterol and don’t even know it.

Why is it important to know your cholesterol numbers? High blood cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States today. Each year, more than a million Americans have heart attacks, and about half a million people die from heart disease. However, cholesterol levels are not the only risk factor. Other risk factors for heart disease include diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, a lack of physical activity, smoking, family history, age and gender.

Once you know your numbers, know what they mean. When you have a cholesterol test done, you will typically get these numbers: Total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in the blood. Over time, it can build up in the walls of our arteries, eventually causing blockage of the artery, which leads to a heart attack or stroke. The desirable level for total cholesterol is less than 200 mg/dl. LDL cholesterol, often referred to as “bad” cholesterol, is the main source of cholesterol build-up and blockage in the arteries. The desirable level for LDL cholesterol is less than 100 mg/dl. HDL cholesterol, commonly called “good” cholesterol, actually helps to keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries - therefore with HDL, higher numbers are better. The desirable level for HDL cholesterol is 60 mg/dl or above.

So, what can you do to improve your cholesterol profile? First, consider making some nutritional changes. Reduce saturated fat and trans fat in your diet, and replace with healthier monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fats, like olive oil, avocado, nuts, flaxseeds and fish. Work to increase fiber intake by adding whole grains, high-fiber cereals, beans, and more fruits and vegetables to your diet. Secondly, increase your exercise and physical activity. Thirty-five to 40 minutes of aerobic exercise, three times a week has been shown to lower cholesterol by 10 percent. Exercise also can help to raise the HDL -- or “good” cholesterol. Third, if you are overweight, begin to work on slow, steady weight loss. Finally, make sure you work with your physician to discuss cholesterol-lowering medications if needed, along with lifestyle changes.

If you’d like to learn more about cholesterol, join me for a Cholesterol Education Breakfast on Wednesday, Sept. 24 from 7:45-8:30 a.m. at the Blount Memorial Wellness Center at Springbrook. I’ll discuss in greater detail the important facts you need to know about cholesterol. A light, healthy breakfast is included, and the cost is $10 for non-members. Call 980-7100 to register.

Angie Stewart is the director of the Blount Memorial Weight Management Center, which provides surgical and non-surgical options for weight loss, as well as diabetes management. Stewart also is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator.

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