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Changing Lifestyles, Changing Habits: Cholesterol and Triglycerides: Not Just Numbers

separator In an ideal world, your cardiovascular system runs like a well-oiled machine, with nothing gumming up the works. Blood circulates easily through your arteries, flowing smoothly, reaching the heart and the brain without great effort. Cell membranes are flexible, not hard. They dilate easily, which helps blood move through your body.

But the world isn’t always ideal. Sometimes, blood has trouble circulating. Often, it’s because your cholesterol and triglyceride levels, or blood fats, are too high. It’s easy to think of cholesterol and triglycerides as numbers, because that’s how we always hear about them. But they’re not numbers. Cholesterol is a hard waxy substance in your blood. Triglycerides are basically fat that’s moving through your bloodstream. Too much of these blood fats creates problems. The fatty substances get stuck in your arteries and cause blockages. Blood can’t circulate well. Arteries stiffen up, and sometimes they even get sticky. All of this puts you at risk for heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

Blood fats need to be balanced
You’ve heard of good and bad cholesterol. LDL is the bad kind. This is a low density cholesterol. Its particles break off into your bloodstream more easily. The good kind is called HDL. This is a higher density form of cholesterol. For healthy blood fat counts, you need to have more HDL than LDL.

How do triglycerides play a role? Most of the time, people who have high triglyceride levels also have higher levels of bad cholesterol than good. Additionally, high triglyceride levels may also be an indication that your blood sugar is too high. In fact, people with high triglyceride levels often find out they have type 2 diabetes or they have a condition called “pre-diabetes.” If you have pre-diabetes, chances are good that if you don’t change your eating and exercise habits, you’ll develop full-blown type 2 diabetes in the future.

We all need some level of fats in our blood. Cholesterol, for example, helps synthesize hormones, helps provide the body with vitamin D, makes bile acids, which aid in the digestion of fats and help ensure that cell membranes remain flexible. But when there’s too much bad cholesterol, too little good cholesterol and high levels of triglycerides, it’s time to make some changes.

Why do the levels get too high?
For most people, cholesterol and triglyceride levels are a result of the food they eat and the amount of activity they get. Sure, there are some lucky people who eat all kinds of unhealthy stuff and never seem to have a problem. But that’s not the way it is for most of us. Usually, if you eat the bad stuff regularly, it’s going to show up in your blood fats.

Family history plays a role too. If you have heart disease and stroke in your family, that’s a huge reason to take a good look at the food you eat and make changes if you need to. 

Here’s what you need to know about food and your blood fats:

► Avoid “simple” sugars
Foods that are considered to be simple sugars include
  • White rice
  • White pasta
  • White bread
  • Sugary desserts like cakes, cookies, candy
  • Soda (here’s a number for you: 12 ounces of orange soda contain 14 teaspoons of sugar!)
  • Alcohol

These foods are also called simple carbohydrates. After you eat them, they break down into sugar very quickly. The sugar enters your bloodstream quickly—more quickly than is good for you. Remember—you don’t want a lot of sticky stuff gumming up the works.

Instead of eating simple sugars you want to…

► Include “complex” sugars in your daily food plan
These kinds of foods, also called complex carbohydrates, break down more slowly into sugar. Instead of a sugar rush, you get a gradual dose, which gives you your energy for the day and keeps the sugar from entering your blood too quickly. Complex carbohydrates include

  • Whole wheat bread
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Brown and basmati rice
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Dried beans

► Remember that fiber can help
Think of fiber as a kind of sponge that sops up the extra cholesterol in your blood. The current thinking is that whole grain cereals have the best results in lowering the cholesterol in your blood. Read the labels on cereals to make sure you’re getting whole grain and high fiber. Oatmeal is a good choice.

► Get the bad fats out of your diet and include the good fats
It’s hard to give up the foods that give you pleasure. Unfortunately, many of America’s favorite foods contain hydrogenated fats, also called trans fats, and saturated fats. If you want to eliminate these from your diet, here’s what you need to do:

  • Avoid snack foods like potato chips, tortillas chips, crackers, cookies, etc. Most of these contain hydrogenated fats. All you have to do is read the food labels to avoid these fats.
  • Avoid most vending machine snacks.
  • Avoid fast food items such as French fries.

The fat in your diet should come from foods like

  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Avocado (in moderation)
  • Peanut butter (in moderation)

Remember that all fats have calories, and even if you’re eating the healthy kind, you still need to limit the amount.

► Increase your activity level
Getting exercise just about every day is another way to boost your HDL and lower LDL cholesterol. It helps with weight control too.

The role of medication
If your doctor determines that your cholesterol level probably can’t be controlled by lifestyle changes alone, chances are good that you’ll be prescribed a cholesterol-lowering medication called a statin. 

If you’re on medication, you still need to do your part by following the lifestyle recommendations above. Your doctor may also think it’s important for you to place other restrictions on your food intake as well. It all depends on your particular risk for heart disease, which is determined by factors such as your age, gender, family history, current health status and behaviors that increase risk, such as smoking.

The American Heart Association; The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; A Weil. Eating Well for Optimum Health. Alfred A Knopf, New York, New York, 2000; S Fallon, M Enig. Nourishing Traditions; NewTrends Publishing, Inc, Washington, DC 20007, 1999. The Journal of the American Medical Association, May 16, 2001; The National Institutes of Health.
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