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5 Facts About Cholesterol

Taking stock of your cholesterol

Cholesterol definitionFor many, special occasions like birthdays, holidays and vacations are invitations to overindulge in rich, fatty foods. Although you may lose those extra pounds down the road through diet and exercise, you won't necessarily dislodge the cholesterol-induced plaque build-up in your arteries that resulted from your unhealthy eating.

So before you accept that extra helping of butter-laden mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving or say "Yes" to that second slice of cake at Mom's birthday bash, Olivia Forys, MD, a primary care physician at Rush University Medical Center, suggests taking a moment to consider some facts about cholesterol:

Seventy-five percent of your total cholesterol arises naturally from your body (it's produced by your liver).

Twenty-five percent comes from animal food products you eat (e.g., meat, cheese and eggs). So while you may be partially at the mercy of your body's genetic code when it comes to cholesterol levels — genetic defects can cause excessive production of low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) or decrease your body's ability to purge LDLs — you can help control your levels by choosing foods wisely. 

Your body needs cholesterol to perform valuable functions but doesn't need dietary cholesterol to do its job. 

It may take the blame for causing arterial blockages that can lead to heart disease and stroke, but cholesterol is essential for maintaining healthy cell walls and producing vitamin D as well as the sex hormones androgen and estrogen.

And the fact is, your body produces enough cholesterol to handle all these jobs; you don't need the cholesterol you get from food for your body to operate properly. 

Cholesterol recommendations sometimes vary, and the numbers can be confusing. 

That's why it's important to know your levels and know what they mean. There's "good" cholesterol — high-density lipoproteins, or HDLs — and "bad" cholesterol, LDLs. Add them together and you get your total cholesterol.

A healthy scenario: a total cholesterol level under 200 mg/dL, an HDL level of 60 mg/dL or higher, and an LDL level below 100 mg/dL. 

Medicine isn't the only way to reduce your cholesterol.

Consider including these cholesterol-lowering foods to your holiday meals: oatmeal, bran and other high-fiber foods; walnuts; almonds; and olive oil.

Exercise can also reduce cholesterol by increasing HDLs and decreasing LDLs as well as by improving circulation. 

In the United States, more women than men have high cholesterol.

Although men have higher total cholesterol levels than women before the age of menopause, women's cholesterol levels jump above those of men around the age of 55.

Another gender difference: Low levels of HDLs appear to be a bigger risk factor for heart disease in women than they are in men.