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How Are High Cholesterol and Obesity Linked?

Many of the same factors affect cholesterol levels and weight. Also, both high cholesterol and obesity raise your risk of heart disease. How these conditions are related are discussed below.1-8

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a natural fat found throughout the body. The body needs it to work properly. The liver makes cholesterol. Cholesterol can also come from the foods you eat. Foods that raise cholesterol levels are high in:1

  • Saturated fats
  • Trans fats
  • Cholesterol

Cholesterol travels in the blood vessels as small particles called lipoproteins. There are 2 main forms of cholesterol: LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein). LDL is called “bad” cholesterol because high LDL levels can cause clogged blood vessels. This can lead to a heart attack or stroke. HDL is called “good” cholesterol because it helps keep the heart healthy.1

Besides LDL and HDL, doctors also look at triglyceride and total cholesterol levels. Triglycerides are another form of fat in the blood. Total cholesterol adds up all the different kinds of cholesterol in the blood.2

What is high cholesterol?

High cholesterol means you have too much cholesterol in your body. Doctors say it is high when your total cholesterol level is above 200 mg/dL.2

Ideal cholesterol levels

The ideal levels for cholesterol in the blood are:2

  • Total cholesterol: About 150 mg/dL
  • LDL (“bad”) cholesterol: About 100 mg/dL
  • HDL (“good”) cholesterol: At least 40 mg/dL in men; at least 50 mg/dL in women
  • Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL

Risk factors for high cholesterol

The factors below may all affect cholesterol levels:1,3-6

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  • Nutrition
  • Exercise
  • Family history
  • Other diseases

What you eat and how physically active you are strongly impact your cholesterol levels. Eating foods high in saturated and trans fats can raise the “bad” LDL cholesterol levels.1,3-6

Saturated fat can be found in:3,5

  • Fatty cuts of meat
  • Baked goods
  • Dairy products: butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream
  • Tropical oils: coconut oil and palm oil

Trans fats are found in:5,6

  • Deep-fried fast food
  • Margarine and pre-packaged cookies, crackers, and cakes (check food labels for “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” which has trans fat)

On top of nutrition and exercise, other factors that play a part in high cholesterol levels are:3,4

  • Genetics – A family history of high cholesterol raises your odds of getting high cholesterol.
  • Drinking too much alcohol – More than 2 drinks daily for men and 1 drink daily for women raises cholesterol levels.
  • Smoking – Smoking lowers HDL (“good”) cholesterol and raises LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.
  • Stress – Stress causes your body to make more cholesterol.
  • Drugs – Some drugs used to treat other diseases can raise cholesterol levels.
  • Medical conditions – Conditions like lupus, HIV, low thyroid levels, and diabetes are linked to increased cholesterol and risk of heart disease.
  • Age, sex, and race or ethnicity – These factors affect your risk of high cholesterol.

Obesity and cholesterol

Obesity also contributes to changes in cholesterol levels that increase the risk of heart disease.4

The changes in cholesterol levels below can occur in people with obesity:4

  • Higher triglycerides
  • Higher LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
  • Lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol

Risk factors for obesity

Obesity raises the risk of heart disease. Factors that play a role in obesity are:4,7,8

  • Genetics
  • Environment
  • Nutrition
  • Lack of exercise
  • Not enough sleep or sleep that is poor quality
  • Other diseases

On top of being linked to high cholesterol, obesity is also linked to the risk factors for heart disease below:4

Heart-healthy living

Nutrition and exercise are key factors that link together:5,7,8

  • Obesity
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Heart disease

Lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk of these problems.5,7,8

The National Institutes of Health offers the heart-healthy tips below to lower your risk of heart disease:9

Choose heart-healthy foods

Eat a lot of:9

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Lean proteins

Limit eating:9

  • Saturated fat (butter, cheese, and fatty meats)
  • Trans fats
  • Added sugar
  • Salt
  • Alcohol

Get regular exercise

Exercise lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Exercise also improves your overall physical and mental health.9

Aim for a healthy weight

Doctors define healthy weight as a BMI (body mass index) of 18.5 to 24.9. BMI is calculated based on your height and weight. You can download a BMI calculator app on your smartphone. Losing weight can lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides and raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol.9

Manage stress

Stress increases your risk of heart disease and other health problems. Healthy ways to cope with stress include:9

  • Counseling
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Relaxation
  • Talking with a trusted friend or family member

Stop smoking

Smoking raises your risk of heart disease. Talk to your doctor for help to stop smoking.9

Get enough sleep

A lack of sleep increases your risk of heart disease and obesity. Adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.9

Lifestyle changes alone may not be enough to protect you from heart disease. Work with your doctor to create a treatment plan that works for you. Depending on your risk, you may need drugs that lower cholesterol to help prevent heart disease.1,5

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