If you’re struggling with obesity, your doctor has probably told you that being obese can cause unhealthy levels of cholesterol in your body. High cholesterol, also known as hypercholesterolemia, is one of the biggest contributors to heart disease in the United States. And heart disease is the foremost cause of death in the U.S., especially coronary artery disease that can lead to a heart attack. But there’s good news: you can take control of your cholesterol levels, and reduce your risk of heart disease, by making weight loss a priority. Know the basics It’s important to realize that, at healthy levels, cholesterol is vital to help your body function. Cholesterol is an insoluble fat synthesized by the healthy liver. It’s necessary to produce certain hormones, acids to help with digestion, and vitamin D. Plus, cholesterol is one of the key components of healthy red blood cells. The problem arises when there’s an unhealthy balance of cholesterol in your bloodstream. Your body uses two types of proteins to transport cholesterol around your body: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is often known as the “bad” cholesterol because it can build up in your arteries, slowing or even blocking the flow of blood High-density lipoprotein (HDL), the “good” cholesterol that carries excess cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver for removal Obesity can cause your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels to increase and your HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels to decrease. Plus, obesity contributes to high levels of triglycerides, which are another type of fat in your blood. This combination puts strain on your arteries and forces your heart to work harder, which can lead to heart disease. The factors that cause obesity tend to also cause high cholesterol. Although your genes may play a role, poor eating habits and lack of exercise each contribute to both conditions. That’s why weight loss through healthy eating and physical activity is one of the most effective ways to lower your cholesterol, and thus, lower your risk of heart disease. Before you make any big lifestyle changes, it’s important to recognize how cholesterol is measured in your body. Understand your numbers A test called a fasting lipoprotein profile will tell you the levels of your HDL and LDL, as well as your triglycerides. Having all this information in front of you will allow you to you and your doctor gauge the seriousness of your condition, which will help you as you prepare to make some changes. The biggest things to worry about are your total cholesterol level and your LDL, because a high level of LDL increases your risk of heart disease. A borderline high LDL reading is 130-159 mg/dL. When your LDL hits 160 mg/dL, that’s when your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases is considered high. A high HDL level, on the other hand, is a good sign that indicates a reduced risk of developing heart disease. Talk to your doctor about your concerns and ask about a plan to find the right cholesterol balance. Reconsider what you’re eating Now it’s time to take steps to lower your cholesterol level. Start by considering what you can eliminate or reduce in your diet. Are you aware of how much saturated fat and trans fat you’re consuming? According to the Mayo Clinic, saturated and trans fats actually increase your LDL levels, as well as your total cholesterol levels. Are you eating a lot of prepackaged foods, like snack crackers and cookies? Many of those contain trans fats. Read labels carefully and watch out for words like “partially hydrogenated oil” which means—you guessed it—trans fats. It’s a little easier to figure out where saturated fats lurk—they tend to be in dairy products and red meat. Opt for low-fat dairy and lean meats instead. If you need additional guidance on what to eat, you may want to consult a registered dietitian. Many experts recommend trying the Mediterranean diet or the TLC (therapeutic lifestyle changes) diet. The TLC diet calls for eating foods that are low in saturated fat and cholesterol—in fact, it puts the daily cholesterol limit at 200 mg. Get active Once you’ve examined your diet for ways to make it healthier, it’s time to consider how much exercise you’re getting—or not getting, as the case may be. You can raise your HDL and lower your LDL while also losing weight by incorporating regular amounts of moderate physical activity in your life. You’ve got lots of choices—you can walk, jog, bike, swim, dance or play a sport that gets you up and moving. Aim for 150 minutes or more per week—and you can break it up into smaller chunks, if that’s easier for you. You don’t need to run a marathon right off the bat—incorporate 10 minutes of exercise a few times each day, and build from there. You’ll see that even if you start small, these changes will impact your weight, your cholesterol, and your overall health in a big way.