Ask an expert: Can a cheeseburger raise my cholesterol test results?

Q: “I ate a cheeseburger the day before I gave blood for a physical. Even though I fasted for 12 hours before I gave blood, could the cheeseburger have elevated my cholesterol? I am 22 and am only a few pounds overweight. My total cholesterol is 180; HDL is 37; LDL is 119; triglycerides are 121. What do you suggest I do to lower my numbers?”

Answer provided by Kimra Hawk, RD, LD, outpatient dietitian with Providence Nutrition Services at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center

If you fasted for 12 hours, then the cheeseburger you ate did not have a direct effect. Fasting for 10 to 12 hours before a cholesterol test ensures that a single food or meal does not affect the outcome of the test.

However, if you ate a cheeseburger every day, that probably would affect your numbers. Cholesterol levels are affected by what you eat over time. If you regularly eat foods that are high in saturated fat – such as cheeseburgers, full-fat cheese, and fatty cuts of meat – that can raise your cholesterol levels. Foods high in trans fats (fast-food fries, crackers, chips, packaged baked goods) and in cholesterol (egg yolks, full-fat dairy, organ meats) also can raise your levels.

Since your numbers are actually pretty good, I’d guess that you eat a fairly healthy diet most of the time. Here’s a breakdown of your numbers:

Total cholesterol: Your level of 180 mg/dL is well within the desirable range of less than 200 for good health.

LDL cholesterol: At 119 mg/dL, your LDL cholesterol – the number you want to keep low – is “near optimal” according to the National Cholesterol Education Program. (Less than 100 mg/dL is optimal; 100–129 is near optimal; 130–159 is borderline high; 160–189 is high; 190 and above is very high.)

Triglycerides: Your triglyceride level of 121 mg/dL is also good – anything less than 150 is considered normal.

HDL cholesterol: This is the only number where your results – 37 mg/dL – come up a little short, especially for your young age. Unlike the other numbers, HDL is the one that you want to keep high. Levels below 40 mg/dL in men and below 50 mg/dL in women are considered a major risk factor for heart disease. A desirable level is 60 mg/dL and above.

So rather than looking for ways to lower your cholesterol, which is pretty good overall, it would be better for you to focus on strategies to increase your HDL cholesterol. Here are some things that might help:

  • Try to get two and a half hours of aerobic exercise every week (about 30 minutes a day on most days). This can increase your HDL by about 5 percent.
  • Lose those few extra pounds you’ve been carrying around (the exercise will help). Every 6 pounds of weight loss can increase HDL by about 1 mg/dL.
  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking lowers HDL levels.
  • Choose fats wisely, opting for unsaturated fats. Get more fat facts.

These strategies should help you increase your good HDL cholesterol and maintain the good numbers you already have.

I’m glad that you are keeping an eye on your cholesterol levels. These numbers are important for determining your risk of having a heart attack. The National Cholesterol Education Program offers a calculator that can help you determine your risk.

At your age, and with your numbers, you probably don’t have a lot to worry about. Just get some exercise, and go easy on the cheeseburgers.