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Cholesterol: Is It Really as Bad as It Seems?

Cholesterol is made in the body, and it’s taken in by the food we eat. Too much of it increases the risk for deadly heart disease, while too little can have the same effect. Where can people find the perfect balance?

Mateo Dayo, M.D., of Florida’s Venice-Ocala Heart Institute, explains: “There are two types of cholesterol. HDL is the ‘good’ kind and LDL is the ‘bad.’ The key to healthy levels is finding and maintaining that perfect balance between the two.” But despite that bad reputation for clogging arteries, cholesterol performs vital functions for the body. It builds cell membranes and contributes to the formation of certain hormones, Vitamin D and bile acids.

“But cholesterol won’t just dissolve in the blood,” Dayo says, “That’s where HDL and LDL come in. HDL is a high-density lipoprotein that transports cholesterol through the body. It gets its ‘good’ designation because higher levels in the blood show a decreased risk for heart attack. LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, is just the opposite—when higher levels circulate through the arteries, the ‘bad’ LDL builds up on the walls of the vessel and causes stroke or heart attack.”

HDL and LDL: It’s Good vs. Bad

What’s really tricky about diagnosing a treatment plan for unhealthful proportions of HDL and LDL is that there usually aren’t any symptoms to watch out for. So in order to expose this elusive killer, people need to have their cholesterol tested regularly. “Treatment plans vary for every patient, because cholesterol levels and the factors that control them are unique to each individual,” says Jonathan Fong, M.D., also from the Venice-Ocala Heart Institute.

Worry about unhealthful cholesterol levels might make it seem harder to enjoy a celebrated American pastime: eating. Here are a few ways to eat healthily without sacrificing good food:

■ Simply reduce the amount of meat consumed per meal.

■ Opt for seafood at least twice a week.

■ Cook fresh vegetables…but nix the salt.

■ Eat just the egg whites instead of whole eggs.

■ Limit the amount of dairy fat taken in.

■ Increase the whole grains and fiber in a diet every day.

The solution to balancing these levels is a healthy lifestyle. “Factors like age, family history and even gender can really affect cholesterol,” Fong says. “Some individuals can manage this with simple lifestyle changes, while others need medication to supplement lifestyle changes.”

Controlling Cholesterol:

■ Don’t smoke.

■ Exercise regularly

■ Eat healthfully. (Stay away from trans fats and saturated fats, and limit total fat intake to less than 30% of total calories each day)

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