September is National Cholesterol Education Month and the Washington DC VA Medical Center is spreading awareness about the importance of monitoring your cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in all the cells in your body. It performs three vital tasks: producing sex hormones (testosterone and progesterone), creating bile to help the liver turn fats into fatty acids, and serves as the building block for human tissue.
Your body produces 80 percent of the cholesterol it needs to function. It gets the other 20 percent through consuming animal byproducts like eggs, cheese or meat. Washington DC VA Medical Center’s Clinical Nutrition Manager, Shraddha Pawar, MS, RDN, said cholesterol is divided into two types, good and bad, to help explain how to manage both.
“Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) circulates in the blood, moving cholesterol around to where it is needed for cell repair. It is considered bad cholesterol, even though it is necessary, because too much of it can be dangerous,” said Pawar. “High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) is considered good cholesterol because it helps move bad cholesterol to the liver where it is broken down and flushed from your body.”
Too much bad cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries, causing them to narrow and restrict blood flow. This can lead to a heart attack, heart disease and more. Understanding what factors cause high cholesterol can help you mitigate risks of developing these life-threatening conditions.
The most common risk factors for high cholesterol include:
- Consuming too many saturated fat (found in fatty meat, butter, lard, full-fat dairy products)
- Consuming too many trans fats (found in packaged snacks or desserts)
- Lack of exercise (exercise helps to improve good cholesterol levels)
- A body mass index of 30 or greater
- Tobacco use
- Alcohol use
- Family history of heart disease
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that you begin to monitor your cholesterol levels early in life, this includes children and adolescents. If any of the risk factors above apply to you, speak to your doctor about developing a plan to prevent high cholesterol.
Effective ways to manage cholesterol levels at home include:
- Increase daily exercise (plan for 30-60 minutes)
- Weight loss if you are considered overweight or obese
- Stay properly hydrated (try to consume 8 glasses of water or sugar free liquids daily)
- Adopt a healthier diet
- Cut our tobacco products
Diet changes can have the biggest impact on your cholesterol levels and improve all your bodily functions. Pawar recommends consulting a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), to help equip you with the knowledge to separate facts from fads and develop a healthier diet plan you can sustain.
“We have specialized training to offer medical nutrition therapy and we work with your health care team to prevent your risk of diseases,” said Pawar. “We can empower you to take charge of your health and live life to the fullest through a whole health approach and evidence-based nutrition information you can use.”
While RDN’s are the food and nutrition experts, Pawar reminds Veterans that they are still human and understand the challenges that come with making lifestyle changes.
“You’re going to have days where you grab a bag of potato chips or eat too much desert,” said Pawar. “I know because I do it too. We all slip up on our journey to a healthier lifestyle. The important thing is that you pick yourself up and keep going.”
To learn more about cholesterol testing and monitoring through your local VA primary care provider, visit: High Cholesterol – National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (va.gov)