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What Is a Low-Cholesterol Diet?

A low-cholesterol diet is one that strictly limits a person’s intake of foods that are high in saturated fats, a type of fat found in animal-based foods such as meats and dairy products as well as in processed foods such as cakes, cookies, chips and mayonnaise. Most plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, don’t contain saturated fats and therefore are an important part of a low-cholesterol diet. Red meats generally are very high in saturated fats and therefore will be discouraged in favor of lean meats, such as chicken and certain kinds of fish. Also, solid fats such as butter or margarine will be sidelined in favor of healthier alternatives such as olive and canola oils. A low-cholesterol likely will involve increased activity as well, because regular exercise has been shown to have a major impact on controlling cholesterol levels.

A naturally occurring substance, cholesterol is made by the body in the liver. It plays a necessary role in proper health. For instance, it helps the body maintain healthy hormone levels, healthy cell walls and production of vitamin D. Only a very small percentage of the cholesterol in the body comes directly from the food that a person eats. Rather, if a person has high cholesterol, it signifies that his or her body is producing more cholesterol than it needs in response to that person’s consumption of too much saturated fat.

Cholesterol is a waxy, sticky substance that is carried in the bloodstream. When there is an overabundance of cholesterol present in the bloodstream, the excess can attach itself to artery walls. The cholesterol starts to accumulate and, over time, the buildup can block proper blood flow through the arteries. This can result in heart attack, stroke or other serious health conditions.

There are two types of cholesterol present in the body: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL is commonly referred to as bad cholesterol because it is the type that can build up along the artery walls if the body produces too much of it. HDL, on the other hand, is considered good cholesterol because it helps the body maintain healthy levels of LDL in the bloodstream. A low-cholesterol diet strives to reduce the amount of LDL while increasing the HDL.

A cholesterol level above 220 milligrams per deciliter (ml/dl) is considered unhealthy and indicates the need for a low-cholesterol diet. For some people, cholesterol levels can be controlled by diet alone. Others, however, might need medication in conjunction with a proper diet in order to keep their cholesterol levels in check. In some countries, it is estimated that more than half of all adults age 20 or older have high cholesterol levels. Health experts recommend that each adult should have his or her cholesterol levels checked at least once every five years.

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