Cholesterol, a waxy substance found in our blood, is an extremely essential element for the body to ensure its smooth functioning. It assists in developing new cells, strengthening metabolic functions, producing vitamins and other hormones such as testosterone, oestrogen and adrenal hormones that are vital for our body and good health. So, you need to maintain a certain level of cholesterol in your body. However, excess amounts can be problematic and pose a threat.
Usually, your liver produces the amount of cholesterol you need. Also, your body gets cholesterol from the food you eat, especially meat, poultry and dairy products. When your body doesn’t digest this excess amount of cholesterol, it causes the development of fatty deposits in your blood vessels, creating difficulties for the body to maintain smooth blood circulation through your arteries. This situation results in cardiovascular diseases, making you prone to heart disease and stroke. To avoid such situations, you need to understand your cholesterol level and work to maintain a healthy level. Besides, South Asians are more prone to imbalances because of genetic risks, lack of physical activity and sub-optimal dietary habits.
CHECKING YOUR CHOLESTEROL LEVEL
Maintaining a healthy level of body cholesterol begins with understanding your cholesterol level. Ideally every adult, aged 20 or above, should go for cholesterol check-up after four to six years. In case of health complications, your doctor may seek quick examinations.
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A blood test called lipid profile or lipid panel is performed to measure your cholesterol level. It gives exact figures of High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL), Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL), triglycerides and total blood (or serum) cholesterol.
HDL, the good lipoprotein, takes excess cholesterol to the liver which makes it harmless. The LDL, or the bad one, transports cholesterol throughout your body, piling it up in arteries and obstructing blood circulation. Triglyceride is a type of fat in the blood that increases your risk of developing heart diseases.
WHO IS AT RISK OF UNHEALTHY CHOLESTEROL LEVELS?
There are myriad risk factors that make you vulnerable to unhealthy cholesterol levels. Your poor dietary habits are a major reason. For instance, your body produces adequate LDL. But when you consume unhealthy food such as too much saturated fat or trans fats, it produces more LDL. Similarly, lack of physical activities, obesity, smoking, alcohol consumption and age could be the prominent risk factors.
Also, sometimes, your genes can be the reason behind your unhealthy levels of cholesterol. You may inherit it from your close family members. This situation is called Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH). Additionally, certain health conditions such as chronic kidney disease, diabetes, HIV, hypothyroidism and liver diseases affect your cholesterol level.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a cholesterol level between 200 and 239 mg/dL is considered borderline. Above 240 mg/dL is considered high. It is safe to keep your LDL below 100 mg/dL, HDL more than 40 mg/dL and triglycerides less than 150 mg/dL.
An HDL (good) cholesterol of 40 or less (mg/dL) is considered a risk factor for heart disease among non-South Asians. However, for South Asians, the HDL goal should be 50-60, given their elevated risk. For every 10 point increase in HDL, one is able to decrease their risk for heart disease by half.
HOW DO I MAINTAIN HEALTHY CHOLESTEROL LEVELS?
Your lifestyle is the most important factor that needs rethinking. Right from eating habits to physical activities to regular checkups, you need to make some changes to lower the risk of abnormal levels of cholesterol. We are too used to what I call CRAP (calorie rich and processed) food. You must reduce the consumption of saturated fat and trans fats, increase the intake of food items rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and add whey protein.You can take chicken, fish and egg whites as part of meals on alternate days. Avoid prawns, crabs and red meat and limit yourself to very ocassional indulgence. Besides, you should increase your physical activities which help raise HDL cholesterol. Similarly, if you quit smoking, you add to the production of HDL. If you drink, you can consider keeping the frequency moderate.
Briefly, those with increased LDL levels (bad cholesterol) should restrict saturated fat to <7% of calories and cholesterol intake to <200 mg/day. In addition, increasing soluble (viscous) fibre through dietary strategies such as increasing oats or psyllium as well as fruits and vegetables can decrease bad cholesterol.
Physical activity is important for weight management and healthy living. South Asians are at high risk for abdominal obesity which increases total cholesterol levels and multiplies the risk for diabetes. An abdominal circumference of 32 inches or greater in women and 36 inches or greater in men is the cutoff for obesity. In addition, the BMI cutoff (body mass index calculated as total body weight in kilograms divided by height in metres squared) for obesity in South Asians is 23 or higher (versus 25 or greater in the general population). Remember physical activity doesn’t need to require too much strain and can include walking.
In case you are at the borderline of heart-related health risks due to uncontrolled cholesterol levels, your doctor may suggest some medicine. You should strictly follow your doctor’s prescribed medication only.
A very important fact to keep in mind is that those with unhealthy cholesterol levels don’t show any symptoms. You only face sudden health emergencies. To avoid such circumstances, maintaining a healthy cholesterol level should be your priority.