NCEP Cholesterol Guidelines

Your diet is important in keeping your cholesterol level low.
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The National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) began in 1985. Sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the primary goal of the NCEP is to reduce illness and death from coronary artery disease among Americans. Since high blood levels of cholesterol raise your risk for this disease, which can contribute to heart attacks and stroke, the NCEP established detailed guidelines to help you lower your cholesterol level and stay healthy.


Cholesterol is a fatty compound that your body needs to survive. It is part of the membrane that surrounds each of your cells; certain cells use it to produce hormones or manufacture vitamin D and your liver uses it to produce compounds that help digest fats. Cholesterol travels in your blood combined with protein in a lipoprotein. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is referred to as the "bad" form of cholesterol because high blood levels of LDL can cause a buildup of fatty deposits, or plaque, in your arteries. Over time, plaque can narrow arteries, causing coronary artery disease when blood flow to the heart is reduced. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is called "good" cholesterol because it returns excess cholesterol to your liver, which removes it from your blood, lowering your total cholesterol level.

Healthy Levels

The NCEP recommends you have your cholesterol levels measured if you are aged 20 or older, followed by subsequent measurements at least every five years. It identifies blood levels for total cholesterol, LDL and HDL that are generally healthy, as well as levels that are too high and potentially dangerous. A desirable level of total blood cholesterol is less than 200 milligrams per deciliter, while optimal LDL and HDL levels are below 100 milligrams and above 40 milligrams per deciliter, respectively. If your total cholesterol is between 200 and 238 milligrams per deciliter, this is borderline high, and anything above 240 milligrams is too high and unhealthy. An LDL measurement above 160 milligrams per deciliter is too high and anything higher than 190 milligrams per deciliter is extremely high and potentially dangerous.

TLC Diet

The NCEP has developed a set of dietary and lifestyle recommendations called Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) designed to help you lower your blood cholesterol and keep it in a healthy range. These recommendations include dietary changes to help reduce your intake of saturated fats, which can cause elevated cholesterol, especially raising LDL. The plan suggests that less than 7 percent of your calories should come from these fats, which are found in animal-based foods, and also says you should take in no more than 200 milligrams of dietary cholesterol daily. The TLC plan also suggests you increase your intake of foods high in soluble fiber, since this can slow uptake of dietary cholesterol into your blood; examples of these foods include legumes, potatoes, citrus fruits, berries and apples.

Other TLC Strategies

The NCEP indicates that weight control can be another important strategy to lower blood cholesterol, especially for those who are significantly overweight and have a waist measurement greater than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men. In addition to adopting the TLC diet and keeping your weight at a healthy level, it recommends you adopt a program of regular physical activity consisting of 30 minutes of exercise daily. The NCEP also suggests you start a TLC diary to track your daily diet, physical activity and, if needed, changes to your weight as they occur.

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