Heart Health: Is High Cholesterol as Bad as We Think?

Posted On Feb 15, 2016 By Erin Kuh, MBA, RD

Heart Health: Is High Cholesterol as Bad as we Think?

Cholesterol. For decades, it's been the red-headed stepchild of nutrition, with cholesterol-containing foods like eggs being bashed for decades until recent research refuted previous findings. And when blood tests show high cholesterol, what follows? A strict diet and exercise regimen? Taking a statin medication for the rest of your life? Is a heart attack or stroke inevitable? Chances are you, or someone you know has been told by their doctor they have high cholesterol. More than 35 million Americans have high cholesterol, defined as having a total cholesterol level greater than 240mg/dL.

While heart health is affected by genetics, environmental factors, stress levels, and sleep, in addition to diet and exercise, an emphasis has been placed on cholesterol blood tests in the diagnosis and treatment for overall heart health. Even people who are the picture of health can have high cholesterol and are automatically prescribed a cholesterol-lowering med. But this is changing.

What You Need to Know

  • Dietary cholesterol has little to no impact on blood cholesterol.
  • Foods high in saturated fats, trans fat, and refined carbs effect blood cholesterol levels negatively more than foods high in cholesterol such as eggs and shrimp.
  • Exercise and a high-fiber diet plus omega-3 fats can help improve cholesterol levels.
  • Studies show 75% of heart attack sufferers don't have high LDL levels (also known as "bad" cholesterol)
  • More specific measures of heart health are starting to be used on a more routine basis, including:
    • Sub-fractionated cholesterol panel
    • Total LDL particle number
    • C-reactive Protein (CRP) - a marker of inflammation
    • Lipoprotein-associated phospholipase A2

If you have the standard total cholesterol blood test and your results are high, ask your health care provider about the option to have one or more of the above tests done.

The bottom line is that measures of good health, risk factors, and the diagnosis of disease will continue to evolve, but we should question the automatic prescription of medication based on a single lab test. The variables we have the most control over, nutrition and fitness, should continue to be emphasized as powerful players in heart health.

Sources: www.cdc.gov, Food & Nutrition Magazine January/February 2016

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