High Cholesterol Is More Common Than It Should Be

More likely than not, you know someone with high cholesterol, or maybe you have been diagnosed with it yourself: roughly 38% of American adults have been diagnosed with this condition – and even more might have it and not know, because there are no symptoms. It is important to get checked and to know your numbers, though, because high cholesterol puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in America. In honor of September being National Cholesterol Education Month, we will discuss what different cholesterol levels mean, what is considered high, and how to help manage and lower your high cholesterol. 

What Is Cholesterol? molecular makeup of cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that is produced naturally by your liver and found in your blood; it is also found in certain foods and animal products, and eating foods high in saturated fat and trans fat will raise the levels of cholesterol in your blood. While we might automatically think of all cholesterol as “bad,” it’s actually necessary for good health, because your body uses it for making hormones and digesting fatty foods; in addition, there are two types of cholesterol, one that is considered “good” and one that is considered “bad.” Having a higher “good” number is helpful, but having too much “bad” cholesterol in your blood is a problem, and puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke. There are no signs or symptoms of high cholesterol, so the only way to know if you have it is to get blood work done. 

Understanding Cholesterol Numbers

Cholesterol travels through the blood on proteins called lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoproteins:

  • LDL (low density lipoprotein), also known as “bad” cholesterol, because it builds up on the walls of your blood vessels in the form of plaque; this plaque makes your blood vessels narrower, meaning blood will have a harder time flowing to and from your heart, which is what causes heart attacks. So, if your LDL number is high, you are at greater risk for heart disease and stroke.
  • HDL (High-density lipoprotein), also known as “ good” cholesterol. Your body will absorb this type of cholesterol, carry it back to the liver, and flush it from the body. Having a higher HDL will help lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.

When you have a blood test to check your cholesterol levels, you will be presented with 4 numbers:

  1. Your bad cholesterol, or LDL, which should be less than 100 mg/dL
  2. Your good cholesterol, or HDL, which should be at least 50 mg/dL in women and 40 mg/dL in men. 
  3. Your total cholesterol number, which should be between 125 mg/dL and 200 mg/dL.
  4. Your triglycerides, which is a type of fat in the blood. Normal levels should be below 150 mg/dL.

According to the CDC, roughly 1 in 5 adolescents, and nearly 93 million U.S. adults aged 20 or older have total cholesterol levels higher than 200 mg/dL. Nearly 29 million adult Americans have total cholesterol levels higher than 240 mg/dL.

deep fried chicken wings
Eating deep fried foods can increase your cholesterol level.

What Causes High Cholesterol?

Everyone is at risk for developing high cholesterol, although your risk does go up with age; it can be caused by multiple factors, including your lifestyle and a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol, known as familial hypercholesterolemia. In many cases, though, your diet is the culprit: your body naturally produces all the bad cholesterol it needs, so eating foods high in certain fats  will cause your body to produce too much LDL cholesterol. The main dietary causes of high bad cholesterol include:

  • Not eating enough foods containing healthy fats– Healthy fats will help increase your good HDL cholesterol levels.
  • Eating foods containing unhealthy fats– Full-fat dairy products, butter, deep-fried foods, and baked goods such as biscuits and pastries are high in trans fats, which raise LDL levels.
  • Not eating enough foods containing fiber– Eating foods high in dietary fiber, like veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds can reduce the amount of bad cholesterol in your blood. 
  • Older age– The older you get, the harder it is for your body to clear cholesterol from your blood. 

Conditions That Increase Your Risk

Certain health conditions can increase your risk of high cholesterol, such as:

  • Type 2 diabetes– lowers your good cholesterol levels and raises bad cholesterol levels
  • Obesity– linked to higher LDL cholesterol levels, and lower HDL cholesterol levels

Prevention & Treatment of High Cholesterol

Getting your cholesterol levels checked is extremely important for catching and managing high bad cholesterol, since there are no symptoms of this condition. Everyone aged 20 or older should get tested every 5 years; if you have cardiovascular disease risk factors, you should get tested more often. 

If you do find out that your numbers are high, you can take steps to help lower your cholesterol levels, including:

  • Losing weight- Being overweight or obese raises bad cholesterol levels and lowers good cholesterol levels. Losing weight can help improve those numbers.
  • Eating a healthy diet– Limit foods high in saturated fat, such as full-fat dairy products, fatty meats like red meat, fried foods, butter, and coconut oil. Instead focus on eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, healthy protein sources such as fish, lentils, and nuts, avocados, low-fat milk, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, and foods high in fiber.legs of a woman in red workout pants tying her shoe lace of her sneaker
  • Exercising- A sedentary lifestyle will lower your good cholesterol levels. You should aim to do about 2 ½ hours a week of some type of aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming, or biking.
  • Quitting smoking– Using tobacco products, including vaping, lowers your HDL cholesterol. By quitting, you can lower your LDL cholesterol and increase your HDL cholesterol levels. 

If you are unable to get your cholesterol numbers down through diet and exercise alone, you might need to take medications like statins to help manage your cholesterol, and lower your risk of heart disease. You will likely be prescribed medicine if:

  • You have already had a heart attack
  • Your LDL cholesterol level is 190 mg/dL or higher
  • You’re 40-75 years old and have diabetes

Be Prepared

Having the right health insurance plan means being able to get tested and treated for conditions like high cholesterol, without having to worry about  forking out a lot of money for medical bills. If you do not have health insurance, or your current plan is not sufficient for your needs or is too expensive, EZ can help. One of our highly trained agents will work with you to compare available plans in your area and will find the right one for your medical and financial needs. All of our services are free, so your focus can be on finding a great plan, not worrying about spending extra money. To get free instant quotes, simply enter your zip code in the bar above, or to speak to a local agent, call 888-350-1890. No obligation and no hassle.

Deliciously Beneficial: Dark Chocolate Might Be Better for You Than You Think

There are some things we eat because they’re good for our bodies (and tasty, too – I know I love me some leafy greens!), and other things that are just pure indulgence. Sure, we can tell ourselves that ice cream is loaded with calcium, but that really doesn’t offset all the fat and sugar it contains. But might there actually be that mythical treat out there: one that is delicious and good for you? Turns out, dark chocolate could just be the perfect combination of indulgent and beneficial. 

Dark Chocolate Stats

Feeling skeptical that nibbling on chocolate can actually be good for you? Well, according to  David L. Katz, MD, MPH, the president of True Health Initiative and the founding director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University Griffin Hospital, “Chocolate is the decisive rebuttal to the ‘If it’s good for me, it can’t taste good’ mentality.” It has to be dark chocolate, though, (not milk or white), and the higher the cocoa content, the better.

Just what are some of the nutrients found in this delicious “superfood”? 100 grams (or 3.5 ounces) of 70-85% cocoa dark chocolate contains:

  • 100 grams of fiber
  • 67% of your recommended daily intake of iron
  • 58% of the RDI of magnesium
  • 89% of the RDI for copper
  • 98% of the RDI for manganese
  • 33% of the RDI for iron
  • A good amount of potassium, calcium, phosphorous, zinc, and selenium
  • Tons of antioxidants, like polyphenols, flavanols and catechins. One study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity, polyphenols, and flavanols than any other fruits tested, which included blueberries and acai berries.

One thing to remember, though, is that 100 grams of dark chocolate is a fairly large amount, and too much to be eating on a daily basis. After all, dark chocolate still contains sugar, and 100 grams of it packs a 600-calorie punch. That being said, the benefits of eating dark chocolate seem to make up for any possible disadvantages, as long as you approach it with moderation; for example, try savoring one or two squares of quality stuff after dinner. 

So just what are some of the astounding findings on dark chocolate?

It Might Get Your Blood Pumping in Just the Right Way

And no, we’re not talking about dark chocolate’s rumored aphrodisiacal qualities, although those are being studied, too! We’re talking about one of the most amazing things that researchers now think dark chocolate can do: lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. While many of the studies being touted are observational, and further research needs to be done, what researchers have seen is very, very promising. For example, a study in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate dark chocolate more than 5 times a week had a 57% lower chance of developing heart disease as compared to others. And, In a study of 470 elderly men, cocoa was found to reduce the risk of death from heart disease by a whopping 50% over a 15 year period. Another study suggests that eating chocolate two or more times a week lowered the risk of having calcified plaque in the arteries by 32%. In addition, a large meta-study in the journal Heart found that chocolate consumption can lower the risk of both heart disease and stroke.  heart rate with a heart in the middle of the rateSo what makes dark chocolate such a heart hero? It’s all about the effects on blood pressure (which explains why it might also help prevent strokes). According to research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it could be the flavonoids found in dark chocolate that make it so magical. These chemicals help produce nitric oxide, a substance that sends signals to the blood vessels to relax, which allows your blood pressure to lower. 

Dark Chocolate Can Give Your Mood – and Your Brain – a Boost

If the thought of sitting back, relaxing, and savoring a few squares of delicious, quality chocolate is making you feel good already, just wait until you sink your teeth into that brown gold! Why? Dark chocolate is actually packed with mood-boosting chemicals, like theobromine, the sister compound to caffeine, anandamide, which is structurally similar to THC, and phenethylamine, which is metabolized into your body as serotonin. Recognize that chemical? Yep, it’s one of the most mood-regulating, feel-good substances that your body produces.

Not only does it help give you a mood lift, but dark chocolate might also juice up your brain, as well. Remember how it improves blood flow? Well, that goes for blood flow to the brain, as well, so it can significantly improve cognitive function. Again, many studies so far have been observational studies, but it has been shown that eating high-flavanol cocoa for five days improved blood flow to the brain. One study by British psychologists even found that eating dark chocolate improved participants’ ability to do mental math! In addition, out of eight studies on chocolate and mood, five showed improvements in mood, and three showed “clear evidence of cognitive enhancement,” according to the journal Nutrition Reviews. I’m feeling better already.

It Could Be a Treat That Improves Your Blood Sugar Levels

a finger with a drop of blood on it with the other hand holding a diabetes needle
Dark chocolate can help lower oxidative stress, which is the main cause of insulin resistance. 

If you’re struggling with diabetes, or at risk for developing it, then you know you’ve got to steer clear of sugary snacks. But lower sugar, darker chocolate and cacao could actually help with insulin resistance. Again, those magical flavonoids have another function: they can help to reduce what’s called oxidative stress, which some scientists think is the main cause of insulin resistance. Reducing your insulin resistance will in turn lower your risk of diabetes. 

In addition, a study published in the journal Appetite found that, after 5 years, the participants who didn’t eat chocolate were twice as likely to develop diabetes than those who ate chocolate at least one a week. Well, we didn’t see that one coming!

It’s Good for Your Gut – and Your Waistline?

What does dark chocolate have to do with your gut, other than the fact that you want to get it in there as fast as possible? Well, your gut is a microbiome filled with trillions of microbes – teeny tiny good bacteria that are always hard at work in your digestive tract, helping to maintain your weight, support your immune system and metabolism, absorb nutrients, and even regulate your mood. These microbes need to eat, too – and what they feed on is prebiotics. You’ve probably guessed what we’re going to say next! Yep, dark chocolate is a prebiotic, meaning it’s a type of plant-based fiber that passes through our digestive tract undigested to the large intestine, where those superheroes of the gut, probiotics, use it as fuel. In fact, in one study, 22 volunteers who consumed a high-flavanol cocoa for four weeks experienced significant increases in their gut populations of the extremely beneficial probiotics, Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli.

But not only does dark chocolate help regulate your waistline by fueling your probiotic population, some researchers suggest that a little bit of chocolate before or after meals might help trigger hormones in the brain that signal to your brain that you’re full. Just don’t go overboard or you’ll cancel out the benefits!

Dark Chocolate Keeps You Beautiful!

Long gone are the days of people telling you to put down the chocolate to keep your skin looking its best. Or, at least the dark chocolate! Remember all of those lovely nutrients found in dark chocolate, like copper, iron, and magnesium? They’re all great for your skin, as is manganese, which supports the production of collagen, a protein that keeps skin looking younger and healthier. caucasian woman laying down with a towel on her head getting her faced massagedIn addition, there are some studies that suggest dark chocolate can actually protect your skin from the sun, which is great news for both the look and health of your skin. The flavanols in dark chocolate have been shown to prevent damage from ultraviolet rays, the light emitted by the sun. One study measured the minimal erythema dose, a measure that shows how much exposure will begin to negatively affect skin, in those who consumed dark chocolate. Those who consumed dark chocolate rich in flavanols for a few weeks had a dramatically higher MED than those who didn’t, and a high MED is good because it means you need to be exposed to more UV light for it to begin damaging your skin.. So, next time you’re planning a beach vacation, stock up on sunscreen, and high quality dark chocolate!

It Bumps Up Good Cholesterol, and Might Give a Kick in the Pants to Bad Cholesterol

In the past few decades, we’ve heard more and more about the importance of raising your HDL, or “good cholesterol,” while lowering your LDL, or “bad cholesterol.” Turns out, dark chocolate might be able to do both of these things. One study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that participants who ate a handful of almonds, dark chocolate, and unsweetened cocoa showed a significant drop in LDL. And, cocoa butter, the fat in dark chocolate, contains oleic acid, which is a monounsaturated fat – the same fat you find in heart-healthy olive oil. It should be noted, though, that it also contains saturated fat, so it is again important to enjoy dark chocolate in moderation.

So, while moderation is key when it comes to dark chocolate (as it is for many things), it looks like this is one treat you can truly feel good about indulging in. Next time you’re despairing that you can’t find anything delicious and nutritious to satisfy a craving, head to the chocolate aisle, pick up some high quality dark chocolate (the darker, the better) and relax with a few squares – your mood, gut, heart, brain, and skin might just thank you for it.