High cholesterol has long been known to raise the risk of heart and blood vessel disease in people with diabetes and without. Unfortunately, it’s very common among Americans generally, including those with diabetes. The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to lower your cholesterol and, consequently, lower your risk of heart disease. Making the effort to lower blood cholesterol is especially important for people with diabetes — Type 1 or Type 2 — who have a higher risk of heart disease than the general public.
The bad guy: LDL
Your LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol is the culprit when it comes to raising the risk of heart disease. LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein, and if you have too much of it in your blood, it can build up along the insides of your artery walls, leading to the formation of fatty deposits called plaque. Plaque makes it harder for blood to flow through your arteries, which means that less blood can get to vital organs, such as your heart and brain. Sometimes this can lead to a heart attack or a stroke. Plaque can also rupture, triggering the formation of blood clots, which can also block the arteries, leading to a heart attack or stroke.
So it makes sense to keep your LDL level low. For most people with diabetes, the goal is an LDL cholesterol level below 100 mg/dl. If you have heart disease already, your doctor may want you to keep it below 70 mg/dl. If you’re not sure what your LDL is or what your target is, ask your health-care provider, and make sure you get your LDL checked every year.
Some of the steps you can take to help lower your LDL cholesterol level include reducing your intake of saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, and trans fat (which is present in foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils), maintaining a healthy weight, and engaging in regular physical activity.
The good guy: HDL
HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is known as “good” cholesterol. HDL is like the body’s drain cleaner, scooping up the LDL-ridden plaque in the arteries and bringing it to the liver for disposal. The higher your HDL level, the greater your protection against heart disease. If you’re a woman, aim for an HDL of 50 mg/dl or higher; men should keep their HDL at 40 mg/dl or higher. Quitting smoking, losing excess pounds, and getting regular exercise are proven ways to raise your HDL cholesterol.
Another player: triglycerides
There’s another player to consider when it comes to heart health, and that’s triglycerides. Triglycerides are a kind of fat found in your blood and also stored in the body for fuel. But, as with LDL cholesterol, if you have too high a level of triglycerides in your blood, your heart disease risk goes up. The goal for triglycerides is less than 150 mg/dl.
Lifestyle and dietary measures that can help to lower triglycerides include losing excess weight, exercising regularly, avoiding refined carbohydrates such as white flour, lowering saturated fat intake, and increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids and fiber.