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The Skinny on Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fat-based substance found in the bloodstream and the body's cells. Cholesterol is essential for good health: it builds and repairs cells, protects nerve fibres , and is used to produce certain hormones and bile acids. We obtain it in two ways: the liver produces it, and it is contained in some of the foods we eat, including meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. A healthy daily intake of cholesterol is about the amount found in a single egg. Most of us take in more than that, which is where problems can begin.

When cholesterol moves through our blood, it joins up with proteins to make molecules known as lipoproteins. "Bad" cholesterol, or low-density lipoproteins (LDL), can build up on the walls of blood vessels, where they block and damage arteries. This can eventually cause heart disease and stroke. But there's also "good cholesterol," high-density lipoproteins (HDL), which clear away the dangerous type of cholesterol. Although LDL is the one to worry about, getting accurate readings of both kinds is essential. High levels of bad cholesterol and low levels of good cholesterol mean you could be at risk of heart disease.

Many factors determine whether your LDL-cholesterol is high or low, including:

  • diet
  • weight
  • level of physical activity
  • age (levels rise with age)
  • sex (men have higher cholesterol)
  • alcohol consumption
  • heredity
  • some medical conditions, such as diabetes. hypothyroidism, liver disease, and kidney disease

To help lower cholesterol levels:

  • Enjoy a diet high in whole-grain foods (such as whole wheat bread, vegetables, fruits and legumes).
  • Replace saturated fats (found in meat, full-fat dairy products, shortening, and tropical oils such as palm and coconut oil) with monounsaturated fats (found in olives, olive oil, nuts and avocado) and polyunsaturated fats (found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, fish and wheat germ).
  • Drink alcohol in moderation (no more than 2 drinks per day).
  • Enjoy regular physical activity (such as walking, swimming, biking, or gardening).
  • Don't smoke.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Take cholesterol medications (if necessary) as prescribed by your doctor and pharmacist.

You can help monitor your blood cholesterol levels with a home testing kit. These kits require only a single pinprick of blood to test total cholesterol levels. The test is accurate and measures your total cholesterol levels against three ranges for a healthy adult.

  • Normal: below 5.2 mmol/L
  • Borderline: between 5.2 and 6.2 mmol/L
  • High: above 6.2 mmol/L

Depending on your medical conditions, your doctor may recommend different cholesterol targets. For example, people with a history of heart disease may need to have lower cholesterol levels. Talk to your doctor to find out what your targets should be. You can use the test anytime, except if you've had the flu or some other minor health problem within the last month. Be aware that if you've had major surgery or a heart attack within the last three months, the test won't work.

Your doctor may have provided your cholesterol readings as a ratio of total cholesterol to HDL. Contact your doctor if you're concerned about your results or have questions about managing your cholesterol.