It’s tempting to blame breast cancer as the leading cause of death among women. But in reality, it’s heart disease – for men, too. And one way to combat this silent killer is to understand how it works with one of its main sidekicks: cholesterol.
In light of American Heart Month, we’ve contacted spokeswomen for the American Heart Association’s Go Red campaign to answer your questions about cholesterol and how it can lead to heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
What is cholesterol?
“Cholesterol is a fat and it’s waxy substance that’s found in all the cells of our human body and we can’t live without it. You can actually not eat any food with cholesterol … and your body would still make cholesterol,” said Layne Lieberman, nutritionist and author of Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy.
But the trouble with cholesterol comes down to the two different proteins that carry it in our bloodstream: Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL) and High-Density Lipoproteins (HDL). Of these two, the culprit is LDL.
LDL is often referred to as “bad cholesterol” because it can cause a buildup of cholesterol in your arteries and other vessels, said Lieberman. This may limit the flow of oxygen and blood to the heart, which can lead to a heart attack or a stroke.
On the other hand, HDL is referred to as “good cholesterol” because it is a lipoprotein that carries cholesterol out of your vessels and back to your liver where it can be removed, she said.
What are healthy numbers?
“Recently, with new cholesterol guidelines, a total cholesterol of less 200 mg/dL and a total triglyceride level of less than 150 mg/dL is optimal,” said Dr. Sara Sirna, Loyola University Medical Center cardiologist with a special interest in preventive cardiology and heart disease in women. Anything higher, particularly above 240 mg/dL, raises your risk by almost twice as much.
The optimal LDL cholesterol number is less than 130 mg/dL for someone that doesn’t have any other risks for heart disease while HDL levels above 60 mg/dL offer some protection against heart disease, she said.
Thus, a higher HDL is associated with lower risk of heart disease whereas a higher LDL is associated with higher risk.
However, it is important to note that our cholesterol levels (and triglyceride level) do not determine out entire risk for heart disease. There are many other risk factors that need to be considered such as family history, lifestyle and diet, said Sirna. But of those factors, she suggests that we have more control then we tend to think.
“We can’t change our genes and the fact that as we age our risk increase. But there are many things we can change or influence,” Sirna said. “Controlling risk factors like high blood pressure, smoking or diabetes and adopting a healthy lifestyle and diet is the best method in delaying heart disease.”
What can we do?
Here are some ways Go Red spokeswomen and cardiologists advise you to combat the No. 1 killer among women.
“Plant sterols help lower LDL cholesterol, but unfortunately they’re put into things like margarine or spreads. Instead, eat foods with high soluble fibers like oats, barley, beans, lentils, citrus fruits or peas. These work like plant sterols but you can get them naturally from food. Also, get trans fat out of diet, avoid processed foods and eat whole foods with essential omega-3 fatty acids.”
–Layne Lieberman, nutritionist and author of Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy
“Exercise 150 minutes a week, usually thirty minutes five days a week. It doesn’t have to be strenuous exercise or running a marathon. But the heart is a muscle and it needs to be used.”
–Dr. Sara Sirna, Loyola University Medical Center cardiologist with a special interest in preventive cardiology and heart disease in women
“It’s about the foods we choose. Eat dairy products that are low fat. Use olive or canola oil as salad dressing to lower fat content. Or eat whole grains as opposed to simple sugar and starches to lower triglyceride levels.”
–Dr. Nieca Goldberg, award-winning author (Women Are Not Small Men) and Medical Director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Healthy, NYU, Langone Medical Center
“Eat a handful of unsalted, dry-roasted almonds which contain good fat and eat beans every day because you’ll get a vegetable protein without all the saturated fat and cholesterol that comes with steak.”