December 12th, 2008
11:25 AM ET

Fighting high cholesterol

By Caitlin Hagan
CNN Medical Associate Producer

Everyone is afraid of something. Some people are scared of heights. Some people hate small spaces. Some people can't stand snakes. Me? I'm afraid of having my blood drawn. Luckily (or unluckily depending on your perspective), I was able to dodge it for years. But that all changed at my annual physical last January. At the time my only concern was the needle going into my arm but days later when the doctor called with my results, I learned I had a much bigger problem: high cholesterol. Despite being a healthy non-smoking 24-year-old, my cholesterol levels were much too high. I had to lower my numbers or I faced a lifetime of medicine.

For a few months I made an effort to reduce my saturated fat intake. Most mornings I took a quick walk around my neighborhood for 30 minutes. I thought high cholesterol was an easy problem to solve if I just stopped eating cheese and exercised more. But another blood test four months later proved me wrong; not only had my numbers not changed at all, but my doctor wanted to write a prescription immediately. I needed to make some drastic changes but I had no idea where to start.

My parents don’t have high cholesterol and I was at a loss to understand how I did. What foods did I need to avoid? What foods did I need to start eating? What lifestyle changes did I need to make? What, exactly, is cholesterol anyway? Armed with all these questions I started researching and what I learned was pretty sobering. Research has shown that people with high cholesterol in their 20s and 30s are more likely to suffer from heart disease later in life. Women especially need to beware because heart disease kills more women annually than any other affliction. My goal became very clear: Get my heart in shape now and save myself from possible trauma later.

Fixing my cholesterol meant making some major lifestyle changes. I joined a gym and with my new membership came a new mentality. To keep perspective, I remind myself that I'm working out to elevate my heart rate, not to drop ten pounds. I love the instant gratification of leaving an hourlong cardio class knowing that I might not have lost any weight but I literally worked my heart out. On off days I walk a two mile loop around my neighborhood to soak up some sunshine while I exercise. My goal is to move my body and elevate my heart rate once every day, either through a cardio class, a weightlifting class, a yoga class, or hiking or walking outside.

Of course, you cannot keep your cholesterol levels in check without healthy eating. Over the last several months I have restricted my diet to portions of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and omegas 3s. I rarely drink soda or eat fried food (although I randomly indulge in French fries; I can't help it!) and I have learned to cook healthy meals at home. I am not a vegetarian but I have reduced the amount of meat I eat, especially processed deli meats. So far my efforts have made a difference; I dropped my cholesterol level 11 points over the past five months. There is still room for improvement but for now I am confident in the life changes I've made.

Do you know your cholesterol levels? What have you done to lower your cholesterol score?

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. Ratna Sadal

    Dear Caitlin Hagan,

    Cholesterol is a tough one. I've come across many people who maintain healthy fitness and eat the healthy mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, but still have a high cholesterol level. This may be blamed on genetic heritage. In this case the use of medication to lower cholesterol levels is required.

    During periods of stress and stress-eating my TG and LDL levels go up, but I can maintain that by exercising and eating healthy.

    A nutritionist will tell you that cholesterol is not an essential nutrient to be consumed, but it is made in the liver (approx 900 mg a day).

    So what does "high cholesterol' mean? Consuming saturated fats. These are fats found in animal products, dairy, lards, palm-pit vegetable shortenings etc. These fats have higher melting points and can maintain as a solid in room temperature. On a molecular level, the fatty-acid chains contain Carbon atoms, which have saturated bounds due to complete hydrogenation (hydrogen bounds). These saturated fats increase LDL (low-Density-Lipoproteins) blood levels which have the affinity to pick-up cholesterol and transport it and dump it on the artery walls.
    Remember coconut and parmkernel fats are saturated fats too, even incorporated in a vegan diet.

    However HDL (High-Density-Lipoproteins) have the affinity to pick-up cholesterol from the artery walls (imagine picking up dust from a surface) and transports it away from the arteries. Studies have shown that literally drinking two table spoons of olive oil a day can "wash" your arteries clean. Olive oil is the fat that has more mono-unsaturated fats in ratio of poly-unsaturated fats and little saturated fats.
    People have asked me which oil is better to fry in canola oil or safflower oil. My answer is: pick the oil that has a higher heating point.
    Both oils are fine to use.

    When you pick up processed canned and packed goods and one of the ingredients says partially hydrogenated.........oil. It means that healthy (poly-unsaturated) oil was taken and synthetically bombarded with hydrogen atoms to produce a fat that has a heating temperature and can preserve a longer shelf-life of the product. The bad news is that a Human body cannot breakdown a synthetic trans-fat, because of the molecular configuration of the trans-fat. "Trans" refers to the molecular structure of the fatty acid. "Cis" configuration of a fatty acid molecule is the one that the human body can metabolize.
    This means that the manufacturer needs to spend more money and production to perfect this hydrogenation process (this is why the products that say 0-transfat cost more).

    That's why it is important why the governments intrevention is needed in the matter of transfat consumption. It is the fault of the food marketing and production itself. The fault doesn't lay in the food nor the consumer.

    Omega 3 & 6: You are not obligated to eat fish. You can find this is flax-seed-oil, flax meal (ground flax-seed), hemp seed, nuts and legumes etc. And there are other omega 3 & 6 foods I haven't mentioned. I add flax-meal to my muffins and pancakes. It is great added to a smoothie as well.

    To maintain healthy cholesterol, one is still allowed 4-6 eggs a week and some shrimp cocktails, because these are the ones that don't directly go to our arteries, unless you seriously are at risk.

    Ratna Sadal
    Community Health Educator
    AKA: "The Maintenance Guru"

    December 12, 2008 at 15:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. GF, Los Angeles

    I so related to your post Caitlin! I've had high cholesterol since I was 30 and it's gotten worse since (I'm in my late 30's). I normally exercised 3 times a week at a gym however that wasn't enough. At my last follow up physical I had decreased 9 points and was told to exercise a minimum of 5 times a week and to eat more fish (preferably salmon) and more green leafy vegetables. I've also been told to eat oatmeal everyday and to eliminate creamy dishes from my diet i.e. alfredo sauces and creamy soups. I've also had to decrease (better if I eliminate) the number of baked goods I eat. It's been very interesting to discover how much I cannot eat. It's easier for me to make my own food then it is to go to a restaurant. I've been told it is definitely genetics that my body is producing the extra cholesterol however since my good outweighs my bad I am not on medication for it but one day will be. Good luck to you!

    December 12, 2008 at 16:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. cherise

    as a teen i saw my gran go through a triple bypass, later on i saw my mother battle with uncontrolable high cholesterol and i swore i would never let myself ever be that ill. ive always been a healthy eater but now i take it seriously! i always choose the whole grain option, and my biggest rule of all read the label on food. if it sounds like a chemistry experiment dont eat it! prepare your own meals, have food as unprocessed as possible and make healthy substitutions for your favourite dishes. i walk rather than take the bus, at least an hour a day and i make exercise fun by taking dance classes rather than join a gym. i have a blood screening once a year and so far im all clear. plus now i can salsa and bellydance!

    December 16, 2008 at 19:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Lauren Conley

    Caitlin, as a young adult my cholesterol never exceeded 180, even when I ate lots of saturated fats, and for that reason I thought I'd dodged the bullet. Well the bullet was there but it was just a little slow in finding me. So right now, I am taking vitamins like crazy including D and Niacin, and eating healthier. I am aware of a ticking time bomb in my arteries and I don't want it to go off. First to go were the vending machine snacks. Second I eat vegetables every chance I can.

    I also plan to join a gym...but then, I always say that. Not having a car, I walk alot so that does help, though it does keep me from grocery shopping for healthy fruits and vegetables, as these items do tend to be heavy, and I have painful scoliosis.

    Due to my cholesterol being a "pre-existing condition", my new insurance will not cover another test for another 10 months or so. I am trying, but it would be nicer to have medicines as a backup in case my eating habits aren't helping. So all I can do is keep my fingers crossed that it won't get worse before next August!

    Ratna Sadal: thank you much for your informative comment.

    December 16, 2008 at 21:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Michelle

    Just got the "high cholesterol" news~ I can tell you, at 43, it is not a good one. My levels are so high currently, I could have a stroke/heart attack tomorrow. This is very upsetting as I am also currently going through separation/ divorce, bankruptcy, moving/forclosure and the many other difficulties these bring. Sure that I am not alone, a plan ensues. Being online is helping to find the real answers, before medication. I do wish I had made some different decisions, dietarily, but, I am learning not to trust everything I hear, read and see when it comes to my health. Visiting with my doctor (have not been for bloodwork in 10+ years) on Friday will solidify my thoughts and put the plan into action. My dog will be very happy~ her walking routine will increase significantly!

    January 27, 2009 at 08:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Donna

    My 18 year old son has high cholesterol.He takes two fish oil tablets per day,and four red rice yeast per day he seems to being doing very well.

    January 30, 2009 at 21:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Alice

    Be careful with the red rice yeast, even though it is natural, it can damage your liver.

    January 29, 2010 at 12:55 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.