Your body needs cholesterol to work well. But cholesterol levels that are too high can harm you.
Cholesterol is measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Extra cholesterol in your blood builds up inside the walls of your blood vessels. This buildup is called plaque, or atherosclerosis. Plaque reduces or stops blood flow. This can cause a heart attack, stroke, or other serious heart or blood vessel disease.
Your cholesterol numbers
All men should have their blood cholesterol levels tested every 5 years, starting at age 35. All women should do the same, starting at age 45. Many people should have their blood cholesterol levels tested at a younger age, possibly as early as age 20, if they have risk factors for heart disease. Have your cholesterol checked more often (probably every year) if you have:
You want your HDL cholesterol to be high. Exercise can help raise it.
It is important to eat right, keep a healthy weight, and exercise, even if:
You do not have heart disease or diabetes
Your cholesterol levels are in the normal range
These healthy habits may help prevent future heart attacks and other health problems.
Eat foods that are low in fat. These include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Using low-fat toppings, sauces, and dressings will help.
Look at food labels. Avoid foods that are high in saturated fat. Eating too much of this type of fat can lead to heart disease.
Choose lean protein foods -- soy, fish, skinless chicken, very lean meat, and fat-free or 1% dairy products.
Look for the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" and trans fats on food labels. Do not eat foods with these words in the ingredients lists.
Limit how much fried food you eat.
Limit how many prepared baked goods (such as donuts, cookies, and crackers) you eat. They may contain a lot of fats that are not healthy.
Eat fewer egg yolks, hard cheeses, whole milk, cream, ice cream, and butter.
Eat less fatty meat and smaller portions of meat, altogether.
Use healthier ways to cook fish, chicken, and lean meats, such as broiling, grilling, poaching, and baking.
Eat foods that are high in fiber. Good fibers to eat are oats, bran, split peas and lentils, beans (such as kidney, black, and navy beans), some cereals, and brown rice.
Learn how to shop for and cook foods that are healthy for your heart. Learn how to read food labels to choose healthy foods. Stay away from fast foods, where healthy choices can be hard to find.
Get plenty of exercise. And talk with your doctor about what kinds of exercises are best for you.
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David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. A.D.A.M. Editorial Update: 05/14/2014