Cholesterol is a waxy substance that comes from two sources. Your body naturally produces all of the cholesterol it needs and circulates it through the blood. Cholesterol also is found in foods from animals, such as red meat and dairy products, that are high in saturated and trans fats. When you eat a lot of these foods, your liver produces more cholesterol than the body needs – and that can lead to serious problems.
When there is too much cholesterol in your blood, plaque builds up along the walls of the arteries. Without intervention, the plaque will continue to build and, eventually, the pathway through the arteries will be narrowed or even completely blocked. This disrupts the normal flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart, and can raise your risk of chest pain, heart attack or stroke.
Not all cholesterol is bad. LDL cholesterol stands for low-density lipoprotein and is the “bad” cholesterol that can clog your arteries. Saturated fats like those in beef and full-fat dairy can increase LDL cholesterol and, consequently, increase heart disease risk.
HDL cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein, is the “good” cholesterol that helps remove LDL cholesterol and protect the arteries. In women, the sex hormone estrogen helps increase HDL cholesterol, which may offer additional protection against heart disease during childbearing years when estrogen levels are highest. After menopause, when estrogen levels decrease, women may lose that protection and become more vulnerable to high LDL and associated heart problems.
Triglycerides are the fat in the blood; when triglyceride levels are high, the risk of heart disease increases. As women get older, their triglyceride levels tend to rise. Women can help manage their cholesterol and triglyceride levels by making healthy lifestyle choices.
Following a vegetarian diet is fine if that is your preference, but it isn’t necessary for heart health. If you eat meat, focus on lean protein sources such as chicken and fish, and minimize red meat.
Build the rest of your diet around whole foods and complex carbohydrates that are high in fiber and nutrients and low in fat. Eating monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from plants like avocados, olives and walnuts can help increase your HDL cholesterol. Keep in mind that all fats are high in calories, so use them in moderation.
Exercise can also help lower LDL cholesterol and strengthen your heart. Aim to get about 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. If lifestyle changes aren’t enough to manage your cholesterol levels, prescription medications like statins may help. Talk to your doctor about how often to have your cholesterol levels tested and how you can keep them at optimal levels.
Scripps Women’s Heart Center provides heart care for women, by women. Our female cardiologists are experts in cardiology and integrative medicine, and specialize in female heart disease. We’re dedicated to empowering women to take care of their hearts through education, lifestyle and, when needed, expert medical care.