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What is cholesterol?

Published on October 21, 2015 at 14:42 / Updated on February 11, 2020 at 15:24

Oftentimes, cholesterol is often perceived as being “the bad guy” from a cardiovascular health point of view. However, did you know that cholesterol plays a vital role in the body? In fact, the body uses cholesterol to build the structure of cell membranes, make several different hormones, and help the metabolism work efficiently.

Everyone thinks that dietary cholesterol has a huge impact on the lipids that circulate in the blood. If you take into consideration all the cholesterol found in your body, 70% is produced by the liver and 30% is extracted from the food you eat. However, this does not mean that food doesn’t have an effect on your cholesterol levels.

What are blood lipids?

Blood is comprised of several substances, including fat-like substances known as blood lipids. The main blood lipids found in your body are triglycerides and cholesterol.

Why are blood lipids so important?

People who have high levels of cholesterol or triglycerides do not have any observable symptoms. A blood test is required. Why are levels of cholesterol or triglycerides so important? The higher your cholesterol or triglycerides, the higher your risk for several cardiovascular diseases. Blood lipids (both cholesterol and triglycerides) form deposits in your arteries and can cause them to narrow, harden or become blocked. Your oxygen supply could become compromised, leading to various heart problems. If deposits break suddenly and form a clot, you could suffer from a heart attack or, if the clot forms in your brain, a stroke.

Are there ways to prevent cardiovascular disease?

High cholesterol increases the risk of developing heart disease. However, cholesterol is not the only factor. Indeed, age, being a male, a family history, diabetes, high blood pressure, being sedentary, obesity, smoking and poor functioning kidneys are also risk factors. While some factors cannot be controlled, you can reduce your risks:

Quit smoking

Smoking cessation is one of the most important factors to improving your heart health.

Exercise regularly

Regular exercise is a great way to stay healthy and prevent heart disease. According to current recommendations, adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, which can be spread over periods of 10 minutes or more (ex.: 30 minutes per day). Experts also recommend strength training at least twice a week.

Manage your stress and get enough sleep

It is proven that stress contributes to heart disease. Furthermore, getting 6 to 8 hours of sleep every night is good for your health. Consult with a healthcare professional, if needed.

Limit your alcohol consumption

Try not to drink more than 1 to 2 units per day.

Develop healthy eating habits and maintain a healthy weight

Healthy eating habits not only help to reduce your cholesterol levels but also contribute to reducing your risk of heart disease.

Diet recommendations for a healthy heart  

Eat a variety of non-processed foods

Avoid processed foods as they often contain too much salt, fat or sugar

Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables

For each meal, vegetables and fruit should take up half of your plate. Eat them as snacks and eat them au naturel.

Opt for whole grains

Whole grains are rich in fiber and contain healthier ingredients than refined grains.

Vary the type of protein you eat

Whenever possible, choose plant-based proteins, such as beans, lentils, tofu and nuts. Opt for lean meats and remove the skin from poultry before eating. Avoid processed meats. For fish, your best bets are herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines and trout.

Opt for low-fat, no-sugar-added dairy products and dairy substitutes

Skim or 1% milk as well as low-fat cheeses are ideal.

Enjoy healthy snacks

A piece of fresh fruit or vegetable, along with a piece of cheese or hummus, is an example of a healthy snack.

Avoid sugary drinks

Stay clear of soft drinks, sports drinks, sweetened milk, sweetened soy/rice/ almond milk, fruit drinks (and even 100% pure, fresh juice), and sweetened or flavoured coffees and teas.

Reduce your overall fat intake and eat good fats  

  • Unsaturated fats, particularly those rich in omega-3, are perfect go-to fats. These include fatty fish, canola oil, walnuts, ground flaxseed, legumes, olive oil, non-hydrogenated margarine, avocados and almonds. 
  • Reduce your overall intake in saturated fat, especially saturated fat that can be found in processed foods, such as charcuterie, hot-dogs, etc.  
  • Avoid foods that contain trans fats,  including hydrogenated margarines, pastries, cookies and anything that is deep-fried.

Treating cholesterol

Your doctor can evaluate your risk factors and current level of bad cholesterol to determine whether or not you need medication to keep your cholesterol in check. Take your cholesterol medication on a regular basis for it to work—even if you don’t feel any of the benefits. This medication supports a healthy lifestyle, but does not replace it.

Sometimes, even if you adopt a healthy lifestyle, you cannot achieve the right blood lipid levels. In this case, your doctor may prescribe medication to reduce your cholesterol level and mitigate the risk of heart disease. In the long term, this medication, combined with a healthy lifestyle, can significantly decrease your cardiovascular problems.

If recent blood work revealed that you had a cholesterol problem, don’t take the diagnosis lightly! You may not have any symptoms, but the cholesterol is damaging your arteries each and every day. Take control of your health today to reduce the risk of having a heart attack or stroke tomorrow!

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