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Cholesterol’s Role in Fitness and Health

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A fat-like substance found in cells and blood, CHOLESTEROL occurs naturally in the human body, but certain foods also contain cholesterol. Too much can damage blood vessels and the heart, and lead to heart attack or stroke. Keep your cholesterol in check by eating more fiber (often found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes).

A soft, waxy substance, cholesterol occurs among the fats in the bloodstream and in all of our cells. Our livers typically produce all the cholesterol we need, but we also get cholesterol from certain foods that contain saturated fatty acids (mainly found in animal products) and trans fats.

You’ve likely heard that too much cholesterol is bad—which is true—but the right type of cholesterol in the right amounts actually helps your body function. Cholesterol aids in forming cell membranes and hormones, among other functions.

Dr. Ian Cohen, cardiologist, explains that when we take in cholesterol from foods such as egg yolks, meat, poultry, shellfish and dairy, our bodies break down the cholesterol into sub-particles, some of which are transported by special carriers called low-density lipoproteins (LDL), and others which are transported by high-density lipoproteins (HDL).

The Bad (LDL): Too much LDL cholesterol is considered bad because it gathers in the arteries and, with other substances, forms plaque. The plaque clogs the arteries, making it more difficult for blood to flow to parts of the heart and brain. Because of this, clots may form, and this can result in heart attack or stroke.

The Good (HDL): HDL cholesterol, however, functions differently. “Good cholesterol is responsible for regulating cholesterol flow in the body,” Dr. Cohen says. Scientists believe that HDL removes excess cholesterol from plaques, thus slowing the plaque growth and preventing heart attacks. The HDL carries cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where the body gets rid of it.

According to the American Heart Association, “the average American man consumes about 337 milligrams of cholesterol a day; the average woman, 217 milligrams.” However, the organization recommends that people limit their intake to below 300.

To help keep cholesterol levels in check, Dr. Cohen says, “Diet is most important.” He also credits exercise, which the American Heart Association says raises HDL cholesterol levels. “If those lifestyle adaptations fail, there are medications,” Dr. Cohen adds.

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