The 4 Biggest Myths About Cholesterol--and the Truth Behind Them

woman holding heartwoman holding heartBy Erin Quinlan

Keep your finger on the pulse of medical thinking as three Woman's Day Heart Health Advisory Board members share tips for a healthier ticker. Photo by Getty Images

Myth 1: 'Bad' cholesterol is the best measure of risk.

Cholesterol is an alphabet soup of lipids: There's HDL (the "good" kind), LDL (the harmful kind that combines with other substances to form plaque) and triglycerides (proteins that stoke inflammation). To cut the risk of heart disease and stroke, you may assume your top priority is squelching those last two troublemakers. Not so fast. For women, having a low level of HDL-the good cholesterol-may be a greater risk than having a high level of the bad cholesterol. Safe limits for LDL vary depending on your personal risk factors. A healthy nonsmoker with no family history should aim for an LDL of less than 160 mg/dL, while a woman who has multiple risk factors should keep her LDL under 100 mg/dL. Since your body depends on HDL to fight inflammation and bad cholesterol, there's less wiggle room on that front. Your goal for the good stuff: 50 (ideally 60) mg/dL or more.
SOURCE: BARBARA ROBERTS, MD, director, Women's Cardiac Center, The Miriam Hospital, Providence, RI, associate clinical professor of medicine, Alpert Medical School of Brown University

Related: See 50 surprising foods under 100 calories.

Myth 2: Cholesterol in food clogs your arteries.

Recent research has more or less disproved the theory that cholesterol naturally found in eggs, shrimp and some other foods goes straight to your arteries. In fact, egg yolks are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which may have protective benefits for the heart. Instead of cutting out eggs, reduce saturated fat, which is found in everything from ground beef to cheese and fuels the liver's production of LDL. Read food labels and cap your intake at no more than 7% of your diet (about 16 g a day).
SOURCE: TRACY STEVENS, MD, medical director, Saint Luke's Muriel I. Kauffman's Women's Heart Center, Kansas City, MO, and a member of the WomenHeart Scientific Advisory Council

Related: Check out the 6 best foods for sensitive stomachs.

Myth 3: Exercise will quickly correct your numbers.

If your lipid levels are less than perfect, odds are your doctor will nudge you to get moving-studies show that 40 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise daily can tamp down triglycerides and boost HDL. But for women, patience is key, as you may have to exercise for longer than men to see results. In one study, men sweated their way to better HDL levels in about three months, while for women it took six months or more to reap the same rewards. Not to worry, though: While you're working on your cholesterol, you'll enjoy plenty of other heart-healthy perks, including better blood pressure and easier weight maintenance.
SOURCE: NIECA GOLDBERG, MD, medical director, NYU Langone Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health, New York City, national spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Go Red campaign

Related: Try these easy exercise drills to slim down fast.

Myth 4: If you've always had normal cholesterol tests, you're set for life.

Your cholesterol can morph in midlife as total cholesterol and triglycerides tend to climb after menopause-even if you stay consistent with a healthy diet and exercise. Get your cholesterol tested every three years, no matter what.

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