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HDL vs. LDL: What do I do for High Cholesterol?

First, it is important to know the difference between LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. Also, note that I am only discussing food and exercise and the effect on cholesterol. Some medications can also affect cholesterol levels, so check with your doctor.

What is LDL? Low density lipoprotein- is the "bad" cholesterol of the group. I remember "LDL" for it's "L"... He's a loser or he's lame. LDL cholesterol comes from excessive sugar in the diet, animal products and fried foods. This is why we recommend reduced fat milk and dairy products, limiting sugar intake, and limiting fried foods to one time a week or less. LDL cholesterol builds up in the artery walls and makes it hard for the heart to pump blood through the arteries causing high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and other forms of heart disease.

  • Foods that can increase LDL
    • saturated fats- animal products (meat and dairy)
    • Fried foods
    • high sugar intake

What is HDL? High density lipoprotein- is the "good" cholesterol. I think, heaven, happy, h= HDL. This guy is the hero. He comes into the artery and cleans out the bad cholesterol. HDL removes LDL from the artery walls and prevents other cholesterol from building up. HDL must be high in order to remove LDL from the artery walls. There are only 2 ways to increase HDL cholesterol: eating unsaturated fats, and to exercise.

  • What can increase HDL cholesterol?
    • Eat those unsaturated fats. The ones found in plant products (olive, olive oil, almonds, nuts, nut butters) and fish.
    • Exercise should be cardiovascular exercise with a goal of 1 hour each day. If an hour seems intimidating or unattainable, start smaller. Aim for 15 minutes a day until you form the habit then increase the time when you can.
    • When choosing a type of fat to use in the kitchen, remember, the softer the product is at room temperature, the better it is. Tub butter is softer than stick butter or lard so tub butter would be the better option. And oil is even softer at room temperature so try to choose those more often. 
As for fats:
Triglycerides are a type of fat in the body. Triglycerides can be loosely defined as the fat circulating in the blood. It comes mostly from high fat foods and high sugar foods in the diet. When thinking about heart health, we need to keep LDL, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides in mind. Triglycerides and LDL, when elevated, increase the risk for heart disease. HDL, when elevated, is protective against heart disease because it cleans out the bad fats and LDL cholesterol.

Finally, we have trans fats. Trans fats are man made fats that have little function in the body other than clogging arteries. These are found in prepackaged baking mixes, baked goods, cool whip, boxed cake mixes, margarine, and a lot of other sources of conveniently packaged foods. Since, they are so common, I do not expect you to take them out all together but start to pay more attention to the foods that may contain trans fats and find a better version at the store. 
  • So, what are you looking for to avoid trans fats?
    • If a product has less than .5g of trans fat per serving, it does not have to be listed on the nutrition facts label. Big deal, right? <0.5g, who cares? But, when we eat <0.5g for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack for 10 years, it can really add up. 
    • Check out the ingredients list. If a product contains trans fat, you will see "hydrogenated oil" or "partially hydrogenated oil" in the ingredients list. That means there is trans fat in that product. Cool Whip has hydrogenated oils, but Reddi Whip does not. Bisquick baking mix has hydrogenated oils, but Bisquick heart healthy baking mix does not. Sometimes, making a simple brand switch can make a difference.

Overview of  ways to improve cholesterol via your diet
  1. Limit red meat intake to 1-2 times a week. Eat lean cuts of red meats, poultry, and fish more often. A portion of meat should be about the size of your palm (about 3 ounces).
  2. Use light butters such as I Can't Believe it's Not Butter, Smartbalance, and any other hydrogenated oil-free butter. 
  3. Stop drinking sugar in drinks and limit desserts. 
  4. Increase intake of nuts, seeds, fish, and other unsaturated fats.
  5. Increase amount of fiber in your diet by eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day and switching to whole grain products instead of white breads and pastas. 
  6. Exercise. 30-60 minutes at least 5 times a week. 
Remember Amy, and other Be Well readers, all of these changes can be overwhelming at first. Pick one goal to really focus on and go from there. Thank you again for your question! If you have a nutrition question you want answered leave a comment below or email Be Well at

Have you recently made any changes? If so what changes have you made to improve your diet this week?

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