Several years ago, I became interested in the correlation of BMI and Cholesterol. Was there a relationship? Could I reduce cholesterol without medications? What lifestyle changes could I make to reduce the risk of heart disease?
It all started with a medical exam when I was just 21 years old. God Bless the military…they check EVERYTHING. And one of those things was cholesterol levels. The doctor flagged my cholesterol level as high, but told me it was likely hereditary and I should just “watch it”.
Fast forward another decade, a few belt sizes…my BMI and cholesterol levels rose even higher and the family doctor started telling me about prescription medications that could reduce levels if my total cholesterol remained over 240. That was 10 years ago and the start of my self-experiment.
From everything I read, cholesterol is largely influenced by 5 factors, 3 that we can control and 2 that we can’t: Diet, Exercise, Body Weight, Genes and Age.
My self-experiment gave me a renewed passion for running and had a profound change on my diet. But most importantly, I’ve greatly reducedmy risk of heart disease by lowering my cholesterol from a peak of 261 (BMI=26.3) to a low of 172 (BMI=23.7).
Before I delve into the numbers, it may be worth going over a quick review of some cholesterol basics:
- Total cholesterol is a measure of 3 lipids or fatty acids in the blood stream, called LDL, HDL, and Triglycerides. Total cholesterol is calculated by HDL + LDL + (Triglycerides)/5.
- Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) is referred to as “bad cholesterol” because they stick to artery walls and cause plaque to build up (called aetherosclerosis). It’s these build-ups that reduce blood flow and can lead to blockages that cause heart attacks, stroke, and even death. The ideal LDL level is less than 100 mg/dl and is ‘flagged’ as high by doctors when levels are over 150 mg/dl.
- High Density Lipoproteins (HDL) is called our “good cholesterol”with an ideal range between 40-60 mg/dl. Scientists believe that HDL absorbs LDL in the blood stream and carries it back to the liver. For this reason, you may see or hear the desirable ratio of 3.5 (LDL to HDL).
- The other component that comprises our total cholesterol is called Triglycerides, which is another form of lipids or fat that travel in our bloodstream. Excess calories from meals that we eat are converted to triglycerides and moved through the blood stream. Ideal ranges of Triglycerides are less than 150 mg/dl.
Below is a summary of my BMI and cholesterol data:
Here are some explanations as to the diet and exercise changes I made over time:
- Low Exercise: 1-2 days a week of exercise, no more than a few miles of walking or running at a time. Near sedentary.
- Moderate Exercise: Running 3x a week for 3-4 miles each run for a total of 1-2 hours of aerobic exercise per week.
- Active Exercise: Marathon training consisting of 20-40 miles of running per week with some calisthenics for a total of 5-7 hours of aerobic exercise per week.
- Bad Diet: This was the ‘eat what I want’ diet…which was high is sugary foods, fatty foods, starches, and carbs.
- OK Diet: When I started to become more conscious of my cholesterol, my breakfast changed to oat bran and my lunch eliminated sugary treats…all my other bad habits persisted (soda, evening snacks, daily dessert, sugar in coffee, etc..).
- Good Diet: I substituted fruits, vegetables, and grains (healthy cereals) for snacks and was more conscious about my daily calorie count. I added chia seeds to my morning oat bran and while I didn’t eliminate treats…I did reduce the portion size and frequency.
And as you can see from the chart below, my journey was far from perfect (ups and downs), but the long-term trend is thankfully in the right direction.
In summary, I would conclude that there is a strong correlation between BMI and Cholesterol. I focused on BMI because of the subjective nature of exercise and diet. And if my diet and exercise efforts are truly successful, then my BMI will ultimately reflect it.
Even drug companies take advantage of this subjective notion: ”When diet and exercise are not enough…” . How do we know what’s “enough”? What are you measuring? Don’t get me wrong: I’m very thankful for modern medicine and its ability to cure ailments, however I fear that these same medicines have enabled behaviors in our society that are hurting us in the long run.
For me, I’ve gained a reasonable confidence that if I can maintain a BMI of less than 24, I can avoid being on cholesterol medications. And I would encourage anyone with high cholesterol to try the same experiment. Even in the worst case, you may find yourself still needing some medication…but perhaps a much smaller dose!
If you obtain similar results in reducing your BMI and cholesterol, please share your results (post under What’s your story?).