Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 18: Cholesterol Testing

vegetablesWelcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl never knew about.

It’s National Cholesterol Education Month.

Heart disease and stroke are leading causes of death in our country, and high cholesterol is a major risk factor for both of these conditions. Most people with high cholesterol don’t have it under control, even though it is both preventable and treatable. According to the National Cholesterol Education Program, adults 20 years of age and older should have their cholesterol checked every five years. And, with two out of three adults suffering from high cholesterol, keeping track of your cholesterol is important.

What is cholesterol?

plaqueCholesterol is a waxy substance, sort of like fat, that can coat the walls of your arteries, forming a “plaque.” This is also referred to as “hardening of the arteries” or atherosclerosis. You’ll often hear comments like, “Those fast-food cheeseburgers will clog your arteries” — regularly eating food that is high in saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol that circulates in your bloodstream, increasing your risk for health problems. When arteries have too much plaque, they narrow, and your heart has to work harder to pump blood through your body.

Our bodies need cholesterol to function, but they’re able to synthesize it themselves — unlike many vitamins and minerals, we can make our own cholesterol and don’t need to get it from food. Cholesterol comes in two types: “good” cholesterol, or high density lipoprotein (HDL); and “bad” cholesterol, or low density lipoprotein (LDL). “High cholesterol” refers to high levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol in the blood. LDL is what forms plaque in the arteries, while HDL prevents plaque buildup, likely by carrying the LDL to the liver, which processes it before it’s excreted from the body.

Am I at risk for high cholesterol?

High cholesterol is so common that you need not fit into one of these “at-risk” groups in order to have it. Still, risk factors include:

  • genetics (do other members of your family have high cholesterol?)
  • being overweight (in which case weight loss can help lower LDL)
  • a diet high in saturated fat
  • age (as we get older, our cholesterol levels tend to rise)

How do I know if I have high cholesterol?

mar12_smWhen you have high cholesterol, there usually aren’t any symptoms. The best way to know is to be tested — monitoring your cholesterol levels can allow you to address the problem. There are home-testing kits available, but they are of variable quality and it might be difficult for a non-medical professional to interpret the results.

To learn about your cholesterol levels, you can have your blood tested by a medical professional. You will need to fast (not eat) for nine to 12 hours before taking a blood test called a “lipoprotein profile,” which measures total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides. (Most people will want to schedule their appointment time within a few hours after waking up, in order to make it easier to fast for so many hours.)

How can I prevent or treat high cholesterol?

First, if you’re a smoker, stop smoking — even if you’re a “light” smoker. There are myriad benefits to quitting tobacco, and one of them might be to raise “good” cholesterol levels. Second of all, diet and exercise go a long way to prevent or control high cholesterol, and might be the only steps you need to take if your risk is considered to be low to moderate. Lastly, you and a health care provider might decide that medication is right for you, especially if diet and exercise don’t do enough to control your condition.


While most of our blood cholesterol is manufactured by the liver, around 15 percent of it comes from a typical diet, so dietary changes can influence your cholesterol levels. Fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains are healthy choices, and many are good sources of soluble fiber, which is also beneficial.

Lentils are high in protein and soluble fiber, and contain no saturated fat.

Lentils are high in protein and soluble fiber, and contain no saturated fat.

When choosing meals, avoid saturated fats (less than 7 percent of total calories), trans fats (less than 1 percent of total calories), and cholesterol (less than 200 mg. per day). Saturated fats and cholesterol are found mostly in animal products, like organ meats and egg yolks.

Trans fats are found in hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are used in many processed foods, such as certain margarines, cookies, snacks, and peanut butters. Anything with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving is allowed to advertise itself as “trans fat free” or “zero trans fat,” so if you’d like to avoid trans fats completely, steer clear of anything with the word “hydrogenated” in the ingredients list.

A high-cholesterol breakfast, like bacon and eggs, can be replaced with a low-cholesterol or cholesterol-free breakfast, like oatmeal with cinnamon and fresh fruit. Fatty meats can be replaced with lean meats or veggie meats (don’t scoff — faux meat technology has come a long way since the ’70s!). There are a range of heart-healthy foods to choose from, and eating better doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing flavor or convenience!

Here are some more ideas for low-cholesterol or cholesterol-free meals:

  • breakfast: smoothie with frozen fruit and almond milk; whole-grain toast with natural peanut butter
  • lunch: sandwich on whole-grain bread with hummus, lettuce, tomato, cucumber; apple slices; trail mix
  • dinner: split-pea soup; salad with vinaigrette; corn muffin

Heart-healthy recipes, including dinner recipes, as well as African-American and Latino-inspired cuisines, can be downloaded as PDF files. A registered dietician (RD) can also help you plan a heart-healthy diet.


You can choose enjoyable forms of physical activity, whether there is an exercise or sport you like, or even just increasing the amount of yard work and housecleaning you do. Exercise can include physical activity with friends or family, such as tag or basketball, which many people might find more enjoyable than exercising alone.

Regular exercise can increase “good” cholesterol and lower “bad” cholesterol. The CDC recommends taking three brisk 10-minute walks per day, five days a week. Alternately, a good goal is to get two-and-a-half hours of exercise per week.


If you are considered to be at moderate to high risk, a health-care provider might recommend cholesterol-lowering medications. Such drugs are to be used in conjunction with, not instead of, the above-mentioned lifestyle changes, and include statins, bile acid sequestrants, nicotinic acid, fibric acids, and cholesterol absorption inhibitors.

Anything else?

Besides diet, exercise, and medications, are there any home remedies that can lower cholesterol? Some people say that garlic can do the job, but, unfortunately, garlic, whether raw, powdered, or in an extract, does not have an effect on “bad” cholesterol. Most people enjoy the taste of garlic, though, so feel free to use it to impart flavor in your heart-healthy meals!

If you’re interested in cholesterol testing, make it part of your annual exam when you schedule an appointment at your local Planned Parenthood Arizona health center. If you have high cholesterol, we can refer you to a specialist to help you manage your condition. More information is available from a National Institutes of Health fact sheet.