Every animal cell contains it. It's a waxy, odorless, fat-like substance used to build cell walls, make hormones, Vitamin D, bile acids and other important things.
The human body has to have it to survive. But even if people don't eat it, the liver manufactures enough for the body's needs.It's cholesterol - something with which Utahns are far too familiar. They've got too much of it.
In fact, according to the Utah Department of Health, more than half of Utah adults have a cholesterol level of 200 or greater, which places them at increased risk for coronary heart disease.
Despite the threatening substance, only 44 percent report they've had their cholesterol measured. Others may have had it checked by unqualified individuals.
The health department, which has declared war on cholesterol, is urging Utahns to get their level measured at the right place by the right people.
"We have been getting calls from people who just want to buy a machine and go set up in a mall and do cholesterol screening - give people their number and send them to their doctor," said Joan Ware, director of the department's cardiovascular program. "That's what we are concerned about. The consumer doesn't realize that much more should be provided with every screening."
According to Ware, what needs to be provided is:
- Precise cholesterol measurements.
- Verbal and printed information about cholesterol levels from knowledgeable staff.
- Consultation from appropriate health officials.
- Referral to a physician for test interpretation and follow-up.
- Repeated tests.
"One reading is not terribly meaningful. You can vary from as much as between 5 and 15 percent every day," Ware explained. "There's a 5 percent variance on the machines alone."
The test could also be varied by the time of day it's given, and whether the patient has been sitting for at least five minutes.
"To change your life based on one reading may not be helpful," said Ware.
Yet many patients do just that - adjust their lifestyle based on just one test. The health officials believe this is a dangerous precedence.
"If the test is inaccurate, people can be misled to believe their cholesterol level is OK, when in fact, it isn't," said Kathy Paras, director of the health department's cholesterol program. "Or, they can be misled to believe it's too high and they can, in a panic, run to their doctors. He in turn could order more expensive tests."
So what's the solution?
Ware recommends that Utahns have their cholesterol levels measured at clinics run by local health departments, hospitals, or other qualified health professionals who are using state and federal standards - and provide educational material and a follow-up.
She recommends that everyone "Knows If Your Number is Up" (the department's cholesterol campaign slogan). She wants everyone to get checked, but to be knowledgeable consumers.
Health officials warn that some for-profit companies may not use qualified, medical people to perform the tests. Thus, by law they can't provide any additional information or answer any additional questions. In fact, they may be liable if they do so.
If health professionals do the testing, a patient will leave the screening with an arm load of information and a low cholesterol diet recommended for the nation.
The best news about cholesterol is that it can be controlled - usually by dietand sometimes through a combination of diet and medication.
Dietary tips for reducing cholesterol
- Select fish, poultry and lean cuts of meat. Eat them in moderation. Choose canned fish packed in water, not in oil.
- Choose low fat dairy products such as skim or low-fat milk, low-fat yogurt, sherbet or ice milk. Be aware that so-called low-fat and imitation cheeses may still be high in fat.
- Do not eat more than three egg yolks per week, including those in processed foods and baked goods.
- Read the labels on food packages for ingredients. Choose items low in saturated fats. Eat sparingly those made with coconut oil, cocoa butter, palm kernel oil, palm oil and cottonseed oil. Chocolate is also a no-no.
- Choose foods that are high in complex carbohydrates and use them in place of high fat foods. Breads, cereals, pasta, rice, dried peas and beans, fruits and vegetables are good sources of complex carbohydrates.
- Eat foods that are rich in fiber, especially foods that are high in soluble fiber. Includes legumes - such as split peas, lentils, kidney beans, lima beans, chick peas and vegetarian canned baked beans - in your diet.
- Reduce your consumption of fatty "luncheon" meats like sausages and salami.
- Use liquid vegetable oils and margarines rich in polyunsaturated fats instead of butter or other solid cooking fats that are primarily hydrogenated.
- Use cooking methods such as baking, boiling, broiling, roasting, stewing and poaching to remove fat. When frying or sauteing foods, use a no-cholesterol cooking spray instead of saturated vegetable oils and butter.