We’ve all heard that it’s important to monitor our cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is produced naturally by your body, but it’s also found in food products that come from animal sources like meat, poultry and dairy products.

Even though cholesterol has gotten a bad rap, your body actually needs a certain amount of it to form cells, aid in digestion, convert Vitamin D in the skin and develop hormones. But when your body produces too much cholesterol, it can line the walls of your arteries with a substance called plaque, which can make it harder for your heart to circulate blood. Plaque can also break open and form blood clots which can lead to a stroke or heart attack.

Here are some important facts the James Family Heart Center at YRMC West wants you to know about cholesterol.

1. It’s Not All Bad
There are two types of cholesterol. LDL is known as the “bad” cholesterol because it contributes to the plaque that can clog arteries. Eating foods containing saturated and trans fats can increase the LDL in your blood. There’s also a “good” cholesterol. Called HDL, it acts as a scavenger to help remove LDL cholesterol from the arteries.

2. Count on Having Your Numbers Checked
If you’re age 20 or older and have not been diagnosed with heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends you have your cholesterol levels checked every four to six years. However, if you do have heart disease or other risk factors such as your age, family history, smoking or high blood pressure, your doctor will advise you on how often to have your cholesterol checked. According to the National Institutes of Health, your cholesterol level should be less than 200 (based on levels of less than 100 for LDL and 60 or more for HDL).

The team at the James Family Heart Center also recommends parents monitor their children’s cholesterol, particularly if there is a family history of a lipid disorder.

3. Lifestyle Changes Matter
Yes, we’ve heard it before, but eating the right diet and getting regular exercise can make a big difference in our health, including our cholesterol levels. Some people need to take medication to manage their cholesterol. But making lifestyle changes like eating a heart-healthy diet, exercising and avoiding smoking can help prevent heart disease.

Thankfully, switching to a heart-healthy diet doesn’t have to be boring. To get started, check out the tasty recipes offered by YRMC’s Your Healthy Kitchen.

Talk to your doctor to learn about your cholesterol. Don’t have a physician? Call the YRMC Physician Listing Service at (928) 771-5106 or contact the outstanding cardiologists at YRMC PhysicianCare Cardiology.

Related: Living Healthy and Well, with Heart Disease