Your body is an amazing machine, and its parts all work together to keep you functional and healthy. No part works in isolation, and this is why it is essential to take a holistic approach to maintaining your health. One factor to consider when trying to maintain or improve health is your cholesterol levels, since they can help or harm your body in various ways.
The Cholesterol Problem
First of all, it can be helpful to have a little background knowledge on what, exactly, cholesterol is in the body and why it’s so important.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the blood and cells. It is both produced by the liver and consumed in certain foods (particularly animal products). In small amounts, it is normal and necessary, but high levels can present problems for your heart.
There is “good” cholesterol (HDL or high-density lipoproteins) and “bad” cholesterol (LDL or low-density lipoproteins). There are also triglycerides (the most common type of fat in the body) to take into account. They each play different roles in your health and body functions.
In small amounts, cholesterol is essential for body functions like nerve insulation, cell building, and hormone production. However, LDL can build up in the blood and accumulate on the walls of the arteries. This process, called atherosclerosis, narrows the arteries, slowing or eliminating blood flow to the heart. The result can be chronic heart disease, chest pain, heart attack, or other heart conditions. The plaque buildup can also break off the walls of the arteries and travel through the bloodstream, causing a clot that fatally affects the heart, lungs, or brain.
Fortunately, HDL helps to remove the buildup of LDL from the bloodstream. As it moves through the blood vessels, it picks up the LDL molecules and returns them to the liver for breakdown and removal. Higher levels of HDL are associated with reduced risk of heart disease and other cholesterol-related complications.
Know Your Numbers
In the US in 2016, 12% of adults had a total blood cholesterol of 240 mg/dL or higher, putting them in the high risk category. 93 million adults were found to have numbers over 200.
To get your cholesterol tested, your doctor can order a lipoprotein panel. It is recommended that healthy adults get their cholesterol tested every 4-6 years, since high cholesterol on its own doesn’t present any symptoms. It is important to remember that cholesterol numbers are just one piece of the puzzle – your risk profile for heart disease is measured by more than cholesterol alone. That being said, recommended ranges for total blood cholesterol (which factor in HDL, LDL, and triglycerides) are:
- Healthy: less than 200 mg/dL
- Borderline: 200-239 mg/dL
- High: 240 mg/dL and higher
The LDL (bad cholesterol) ranges are as follows:
- Healthy/optimal: under 100 mg/dL
- Near optimal: 100-129 mg/dL
- Borderline high: 130-159 mg/dL
- High: 160 mg/dL and higher
For HDL (good cholesterol), the following ranges apply:
- Healthy: 60 mg/dL and higher
- Risk factor: 40 mg/dL and under
How Does Sugar Impact Cholesterol?
While there are several factors that play a role in the cholesterol levels in the body, one major contributor to high cholesterol is sugar consumption. Some of these routes are more indirect, such as the fact that sugar contributes to weight gain, obesity, and increased risk of type 2 diabetes, all of which can impact cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease
Sugar also influences cholesterol more directly. When large amounts of refined sugar are eaten, the liver synthesizes more LDL (bad cholesterol). It also significantly increases the amount of triglycerides in the blood. In fact, sugar is shown to negatively impact LDL and triglycerides even more than saturated fats in the diet.
Additionally, diets high in sugar are linked to having lower levels of good cholesterol. Typically, the higher the sugar levels in your daily diet, the lower your good cholesterol numbers will be (and vice versa – lower sugar consumption is tied to higher good cholesterol). Since sugar has such a strong impact on cholesterol levels (and other health indicators), it is a significant contributor to heart disease.
How to Manage Cholesterol Levels
- Cutting out sugar and minimizing saturated and trans fats in the diet
- Exercising regularly
- Losing weight (or maintaining a healthy weight)
- Avoiding smoking
- Prioritizing heart-healthy foods like fish, nuts, and fiber-rich vegetables and fruits
- Your doctor may recommend cholesterol-lowering medications if your risk profile is high enough
Protecting your health and aspiring toward longevity starts with a healthy lifestyle, and managing your cholesterol levels is just one of the many benefits of such a lifestyle.