Even a passive observer would have a hard time ignoring the growing health crisis in the United States.
Sure, you hear and see plenty about how to get in shape - eat healthy, exercise, take time to reduce your stress. The reality is that our lifestyles are slowing killing us, at rates far greater than other developed countries.
The situation is especially concerning when it comes to heart disease.
Consider for a minute the following numbers:
- From statistics provided by the American College of Cardiology, in 2015, 22% of all male deaths and 21% of all female deaths were the result of poor diet.
- According to the CDC, 2016’s leading cause of death in the US was heart disease, claiming 635,000 lives.
- Heart disease accounts for $1 billion a day in health care costs and lost productivity in the US.
- Based on American Heart Association data, at the beginning of 2018, in the US a stroke kills an individual roughly every four minutes.
While certain races and age groups may possess higher risk factors, heart disease does not discriminate, affecting people of all races and from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
Barbara Bowman, Ph.D. who is the director for the CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention sums up the staggering numbers. “Americans suffer 1.5 million heart attacks and strokes each year. In addition, about 1 in 3 adults—or approximately 86 million people—have at least one type of cardiovascular disease, which means many more Americans could die from what is often preventable through lifestyle changes or managing medical conditions.”
So what contributes to such staggering numbers and is there anything we can do about?
One of the critical factors in understanding heart disease, and improving our chances of avoiding or surviving it, is to recognize one of its principal causes - cholesterol.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a commonly occurring fatty substance that is found throughout our bodies and in food.
Contrary to popular belief, cholesterol is not altogether bad for us. In fact, it travels through our bloodstream - in tandem with specific proteins - as a lipoprotein. Our bodies use these lipoproteins for hormone production, cell building, and nerve function.
Lipoproteins come in two forms:
High-density lipoprotein or HDL
This form of lipoprotein is often referred to as good cholesterol as it works to scrub our bodies of excess amounts of cholesterol. This excess heads back to the liver and processes there before it is ultimately pushed to the intestine and eventually out of our bodies.
Low-density lipoprotein or LDL
As the counter to HDL, low-density lipoprotein is your bad cholesterol. Although LDL does deliver necessary cholesterol to cells, it can leave behind deposits of fat within our arteries.
This plaque build-up is known as atherosclerosis which can obstruct the flow of blood, lead to blood clots, and cause aneurysms.
Too much LDL and too little HDL leads to the common “hardening of the arteries.” These blockages and their related complications are what lead to heart disease, including strokes and heart attacks.
Causes of High Cholesterol
One of the most common misconceptions about cholesterol is that to be truly healthy, you must eradicate or severely limit the amount in your body.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
In fact, your body - via the liver - produces about three-fourths of the total amount of cholesterol found in your system. As we noted, it's a necessary part of ensuring your body functions properly and remains in good health.
In most instances, elevated or unhealthy levels of cholesterol originate from conditions outside our body - the ones we can control - or from circumstances in which we have no direct control - genetics and heritage.
While the latter requires a far deeper dive into family histories, the former consists of risk factors with which we are all very familiar. They include:
With 75% of the cholesterol in your body naturally occurring, it means the other 25% is the result of what we choose to put into our bodies.
Diets loaded with foods high in trans and saturated fats quickly increase your cholesterol levels by inflating the production of cholesterol by your liver. The higher production and resulting increase in your LDL levels also increase the risk for heart disease.
There are a number of foods that escalate your bad cholesterol, but the most harmful include:
- Sugary baked goods, particularly prepackaged, store-bought items like cookies, cakes, pastries, or candy.
- Processed canola and vegetable oils where the hydrogenation process raises the level of trans fat. You can also count corn and soy oil as harbingers of high cholesterol.
- Dairy products like milk or cheese that contain high amounts of fatty acid.
- Anything prepackaged, which in addition to the confections mentioned above, includes chips and other snack food, anything fried and the vast majority of fast foods.
- Highly refined grains including bagels, pasta, tortillas, or white bread which can hinder your positive levels of HDL.
- Processed meats such as bacon or low-quality animal-based products that contain high levels of fat.
- Alcohol, the overindulgence of which can increase your blood pressure.
It may be highly unlikely that any individual can completely eliminate their consumption of everything on this list, but moderation and reduction of the most harmful foods will ensure positive returns.
The benefits of exercise are well documented. Without it, our cholesterol and risk for heart ailments multiples. Recurring activity though helps cholesterol levels through increases in circulation and blood flow.
Now, not all of us are capable of following a rigid, five day a week exercise regimen or committing to running a marathon. But even a minimum amount of activity and movement - something as simple a daily walk - will help boost HDL levels and reduce the effect that LDL has on your arteries.
A significant concern in the US not just among adults, but children as well, obesity is a condition that can wreak havoc on multiple organs and processes throughout our bodies.
As it relates to cholesterol levels, a higher body mass index (BMI) - where anything over 25 represents being overweight - is typically the result of unhealthy eating habits and a poor or nonexistence exercise regimen.
This lifestyle results in an excessive build-up of fat within the body and sends LDL levels skyrocketing.
When anyone mentions smoking it automatically conjures up a host of concerns related to poor health including numerous cancers and premature death. Smoking also damages the lining of your arteries, resulting in greater build up of fatty plaque.
Cigarettes are also shown to reduce your HDL, and in turn, lessens the body’s ability to scrub out the bad cholesterol.
How to Reduce Your Cholesterol
Although the consequences of increased levels of cholesterol are indeed severe - high blood pressure, severe chest pain, heart attack or stroke and even premature death - the corrective actions needed to avoid these maladies are incredibly straightforward.
Obvious first steps include eliminating the most harmful of habits from your day to day life.
If you are a smoker, quit smoking. Seriously. It’s terrible for you, and more than just for cholesterol-related reasons.
If you have a high fat, high sugar diet, try to gradually limit your intake of these foods, replacing them with healthier alternatives. Here are ten such foods that immediately get you started on the right path:
- Vegetables, especially those of the green variety
- Nuts, like almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts or pistachios
- Yogurt, specifically probiotic
- Garlic, as an additive to salads or other dishes
- Salmon and other meats high in omega-3 fats
- Avocados, a well-known superfood
- Whole grains, aka high sources of fiber
- Green tea, which is also good for anti-aging concerns
- Sweet potatoes, but without the large pats of butter
- Olive oil, in place of vegetable or other cooking oils
If you must sneak in a few high-cholesterol foods, here are four that can find a place at your table:
- Eggs which have no known impact on LDL levels.
- Low or reduced fat milk, and the lower, the better. Just pair it with whole grain oatmeal.
- Lean or grass-fed meats, with the crucial points being eating in moderation and knowing where your meat comes from and hows its processed and handled.
- Dark chocolate, which carries with a surprising number of health benefits including antioxidants shown to reduce plaque in your arteries.
If you can count the minutes of your daily physical activity on one hand, make a push to add a little extra time, until you reach at least 30 minutes a day.
Again, a 30-minute stroll around the block can mean the difference between low and high-risk heart disease. Aiming to increase that activity as much as possible, including cardio and resistance work, will not only have a positive impact on your LDL levels but your overall well-being.
One of the ironies of your heart is that even with the complexities surrounding its functionality, it's one of the easiest organs to care for. It makes the rise and prevalence of heart disease frustrating for many - both in and outside of the medical profession.
Even if you find yourself at risk, making a few simple changes to your diet and general lifestyle is all that is necessary to keep your heart pumping, your arteries open, and your cholesterol in check.
In other words, it will help keep you alive.