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High Cholesterol: Numbers, Risks, and Tasty Alternatives

Some Veterans may hear at their health care appointments that they have high cholesterol. But what does that mean? Cholesterol is a type of fat (lipid) that the body needs for many functions, such as producing new cells. It is made up of 'good' high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and 'bad' low-density lipoprotein (LDL). If your cholesterol is high the 'bad' can build up in your blood vessels and harden your arteries, leaving you at risk of developing heart disease and stroke. Diet can play an important role in lowering your cholesterol.

High cholesterol is caused by eating a diet that is too high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat or by having an inherited condition that causes elevated cholesterol levels. The problem with cholesterol happens when it gets out of balance, that's when it can lead to heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

If you would like to learn more about your cholesterol, let your health care team know. They will provide a blood test that determines whether you have high cholesterol. Here are a few things to know before you talk to your doctor:

Assess your risk

Have you been told that your cholesterol is too high? If so, you are at increased risk for a heart attack or stroke. This is especially true if you have other risk factors for heart disease. Take steps to lower your cholesterol. Take the time to understand your heart disease risk and how your cholesterol level affects it.

Understand your cholesterol numbers

A blood test will give you a number for the total amount of cholesterol in your blood. The higher this number, the more likely it is that cholesterol will build up in your blood vessels. For your health, it is suggested that your total cholesterol be lower than 200. Even if your cholesterol is just slightly high, you are at increased risk for health problems.

Know food and cholesterol

What you eat has a big effect on your body's cholesterol level. Eating certain foods can raise your cholesterol. Other foods can help you lower it. Watching what you eat can help you get your cholesterol level under control. Reading food labels can help you determine the amount of cholesterol in foods. My HealtheVet helps Veterans keep track of their cholesterol. Blood tests performed by the VA will appear in Track Health/Labs & Tests, and you can also self-enter test results from non-VA facilities.

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan is a way of eating that helps lower high blood pressure. It is rich in fruits, vegetables, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. This eating plan also includes whole grain products, fish, poultry and nuts. It is rich in potassium, magnesium and calcium, as well as protein and fiber. Lower sodium diets also may reduce blood pressure. People on the DASH eating plan who also lower their sodium intake can also improve their blood pressure. VA dietitians have complied a DASH eating plan that uses popular foods to create tasty dishes every day.

Here are ten tips to help you lower your cholesterol through your eating habits

  1. Start small. Make gradual changes in your eating habits.

  2. Focus on fiber. Center your meal on foods that contain fiber, such as whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, beans, or vegetables.

  3. Minimize meat. Treat meat as a small part of the whole meal, instead of the main focus. Have only three ounces of meat at a meal, which is about the size of a deck of cards.

  4. Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products.

  5. Use fruit or sugar-free gelatin as desserts and snacks.

  6. Limit alcohol. If you drink alcohol, limit it to one serving per day for women and two servings per day for men to keep blood pressure from rising. One serving of alcohol is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol.

  7. Use products that are low in sodium or have no added salt. Choose ready-to-eat breakfast cereals that are low in sodium. Cut back on cured and brined foods.

  8. Buy fresh or frozen vegetables. Use canned vegetables with "no salt added."

  9. Use spices to add flavor. Substitute lemon, lime, vinegar, or salt-free seasoning blends.

  10. Choose convenience foods less often. When you do choose convenience foods, focus on choices that are low in sodium.

Read More

Track Health (Sign in required)

DASH Diet PDF (PDF) (Nutrition and Food Services)

Lifestyle Changes to Control Cholesterol (Veterans Health Library)

Updated October 24, 2019