Cholesterol is a fat like substance in the body, useful for various functions. After a certain age, you need to keep track of your cholesterol levels, since an excess tends to deposit on artery walls and hamper blood circulation. 

“Get your cholesterol levels checked… cut back on fatty foods or your cholesterol will shoot up…high cholesterol can give you a heart attack…” You have probably heard these statements, and perhaps even wondered what all the fuss about cholesterol is? Read on, to get the jist.

What is cholesterol? 

Cholesterol is a fatty substance in your cells, required for the production of vitamin D and certain hormones. Most of the amount you need is synthesised naturally. Some comes from foods such as dairy, poultry, meat, seafood and organ meats such as the liver and kidney.

How much do you need? 

The National Institute of Nutrition at ICMR has set the adult daily limit of cholesterol intake at 300 mg. You don’t need to ingest this amount though. Some of it is produced by your own body. The rest comes from the fats you consume.

Your liver uses these to produce cholesterol for the body’s needs. The best thing to do is to consume more unsaturated fat through natural sources like nuts, seeds, vegetable oils (specially unrefined, cold-pressed and extra virgin varieties) and fish (such as Salmon).

What is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol?

If you visit a pathology lab to get your lipid profile tests done, your reports will show levels for the following components in your blood – Total Cholesterol, HDL, LDL, VLDL and triglycerides.

Total cholesterol is a sum total of these components. While this figure should be within the desirable range (upto 200 mg/ dL), the total cholesterol value by itself isn’t conclusive. You need the specific levels of HDL, LDL etc.

HDL (High Density Lipoprotein is the ‘good’ cholesterol, which helps carry cholesterol from the blood back to the liver. HDL higher than 60 mg/dL is protective against heart disease; under 40 mg/dL is unhealthy.

LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) is the ‘bad’ cholesterol, which keeps circulating in the blood stream and deposits on artery walls, leading to formation of plaques- thickenings that lead to heart disease. The LDL level should be below 100 mg/dL.

What happens when there is too much cholesterol?

A diet high in saturated fats and trans fat promotes production of cholesterol by the liver. Consequently, the level rises in the blood, and accumulates on the artery walls. Over time, this accumulation of cholesterol triggers plaque formation.  A condition called Atherosclerosis develops, hampering blood supply to the heart muscle and leading to a heart attack.

How can you improve your cholesterol levels?

Keep a regular check on your cholesterol level, especially if you’re obese, have a family history of heart disease or are 35 years and older. Follow the tips below to keep your figures in check, but bear in mind that persistently high cholesterol levels call for a doctor consult.

#1 Exercise for minimum 30 minutes on at least 5 days of the week – Do a combination of cardio and strength training exercises.

#2 Increase your fibre intake – Choose foods with fibre, whole grains (especially oats, barley, millets, buckwheat), whole pulses (dals), Fresh fruits and green leafy vegetables.

#3 Reduce intake of red meat and organ meats. Choose lean meat (Chicken, turkey) and fish.

#4 Reduce intake of saturated fats (such as Ghee, Butter, Cream). Replace these with vegetable oils (like Flaxseed oil, Extra virgin Olive oil, Canola oil, Rice Bran oil, Mustard oil etc.)

#5 Shift to low-fat milk and milk products.

#6 Reduce alcohol intake.