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Cholesterol is a fat-like substance made in the body, is part of all human and animal cells and is also obtained through diet. Cholesterol is important for brain development, so young children, especially those younger than two, require cholesterol in their diets. After the age of two, your body makes all of the cholesterol it needs. In addition to its function in brain development, cholesterol is important in the formation of hormones and cell membranes. While cholesterol has significant functions, elevated cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease. A regular fasting blood cholesterol test is recommended, with levels of total cholesterol to be less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
Cholesterol is carried in the body along with fat and protein within lipoproteins. The two major types of lipoproteins are low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL is considered the "bad cholesterol" because it leaves cholesterol in the arteries. When cholesterol accumulates in the arteries, a buildup of plaque occurs, which blocks adequate blood flow and increases the risk for heart disease. HDL is known as the "good cholesterol" because it actually removes cholesterol from the arteries.
Saturated fats and trans fats in the diet cause your liver to make more cholesterol, raising your cholesterol levels. A diet low in saturated fat and trans fat as well as regular exercise, helps to achieve lower cholesterol levels. Some sources of saturated fats include beef fat, lard, butter, whole milk and dairy products. Unsaturated fatty acids can help to lower cholesterol levels. Olive oil, canola oil, nuts, and avocados are all examples of sources of unsaturated fatty acids.
The maximum recommended daily intake of cholesterol is 300 mg per day. Some helpful tips for limiting your cholesterol intake include:
- Try low-fat or fat-free dairy, milk and yogurt instead of whole or 2% milk
- Select plant sources of protein, such as peanuts, tree nuts, and legumes
- Limit red meat and choose more fish, chicken, and turkey
- Choose lean cuts of beef or pork and trim off the visible fat
- Use vegetable oils, such as olive, canola, soybean, and flaxseed when cooking and baking.