Special Diet Lowers Cholesterol

Health : cholesterol -- heart and heart rhythmn with a caduceus
AP / CBS
It's no secret that cholesterol plays a key role in heart health, but now a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition finds that simple diet changes can greatly improve your cholesterol levels.

For the "Heartscore" series, The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay explains the controlled diet was high in soy protein such as soy milk and soy burgers, almonds and cereal fiber as well as plant sterols - tree-based compounds that are used in cholesterol-lowering salad dressings and other products.

But the headline is that the diet was capable of reducing cholesterol just as much as taking a statin drug, Senay says.

And though this was a study funded by the makers of many of these products, individually these items do help lower cholesterol. This is great news, particularly for folks who struggle with side-effects from statin drugs.

People who take statin drugs also need to be watching what they eat, which Senay says, sometimes that message gets lost because people think they're taking a statin drug.

Here is what constitutes a healthy level of total cholesterol in the blood.
Desirable: under 200 mg/dL
Borderline High: 200-239 mg/dL
High: above 240 mg/dL

People with a total cholesterol of 240 have TWICE the risk of coronary heart disease as those whose levels are below 200. Unfortunately, half of all Americans have levels above 200.

As you know, your LDL (bad cholesterol) and HDL (good cholesterol) levels are also important.

LDL Optimal Level = below 100 mg/dL

Average HDL Levels
Men = 40-50
Women = 50-60

So, is it possible for cholesterol to be too low?

The short simple answer is no. In general, if your cholesterol is abnormally low it's probably because you have something else seriously wrong such as cancer or another disease.

However, it can be a problem if your HDL levels are below average. Having low HDL levels actually puts you at a higher risk for heart disease. Your good cholesterol is important because it carries the bad cholesterol away from your heart's arteries, thus helping to prevent heart disease.

Women tend to have higher HDL levels because the hormone estrogen raises good cholesterol levels. Women need to be aware that as they age and as they hit menopause, their HDL levels may drop.

If you discover that your HDL level is below 40, the American Heart Association recommends having your cholesterol rechecked in a year, particularly if you have other risks factors for heart disease.

You can increase your good cholesterol levels by:
Not smoking
Losing weight
Exercising 30-60 minutes daily

But of course, the most important advice anyone can offer when it comes to maintaining overall, heart-healthy cholesterol levels: eat foods that are low in saturated-fats and cholesterol, exercise and lose weight if necessary.