The holidays are the most heart-filling, yet least heart-healthy time of the year, according to the American Heart Association. The key to a successful season of taste and good health is in the planning.

Long-term, holiday style consumption can eventually cause cholesterol build up in the blood. Later the build-up may find its way to arterial walls—putting people at risk for heart disease and stroke, say many cardiac experts.

Such warnings offer little surprise, as campaign after campaign by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) have begged Americans to lower their “numbers,” including those for cholesterol, blood pressure and sugar.

Dr. Apruva Shah; photo courtesy of Northside Hospital

Dr. Apurva Shah, a cardiologist with Northside Heart said that cholesterol management remains a cornerstone for treatment of atherosclerotic disease. Those fatty deposits can narrow arteries, which is highly dangerous.

According to heart association experts, the plaque buildups are made up of cholesterol, fatty substances, cellular waste products, calcium and fibrin (a clotting material which is in the blood).

A critical blood test, called a fasting lipoprotein profile, measures cholesterol levels. It assesses several types of fat in the blood and is quoted to patients as milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, this table illustrates the acceptable, borderline and high cholesterol and triglyceride measurements for adults in mg/dL.

If your blood cholesterol is found to be high, your physician or healthcare provider may prescribe a medication known as a statin, according to researchers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Statins are a class of medicines that reduce the amount of cholesterol made by the liver and help the liver remove cholesterol that is already in the blood, according to the administration.

“Unfortunately, medications that raise the HDL/good cholesterol have not demonstrated this risk reduction,” said Shah. Diet and exercise are still the best way to effectively increase your HDL and lessen your cardiovascular risks.

“I think one consequence, and not a healthy one, of having effective medical therapies for the treatment of hyperlipidemia [the presence of excess fat or lipids in the blood] is that people think they can eat anything they want as long as they’re on the medication,” said Shah.

It’s not true.

As people get older and/or gain excess weight, their cholesterol levels tend to rise, along with triglycerides, which is a common type of fat in the body. If you’re a faithful gym member and try to watch your diet, that’s still not all you need to do, say most cardiac experts.

Poor dietary habits affect the body in more ways than increasing your cholesterol, says Shah. The medications help to reduce some, but not all, of the damage done by unhealthy lifestyle choices.

“Eating poorly and having a sedentary lifestyle leads to a cascade of medical issues including hypertension, hyperlipidemia, atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, arthritis, cancer and diabetes,” Shah said. “Patients end up taking multiple medications to counteract these conditions instigated by their unhealthy lifestyle.”

Change is what’s needed, but lifestyle changes take time and require support, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Five suggestions provided on the association’s website include: 1) be specific about your plan; 2) identify realistic goals; 3) change only one behavior at a time; 4) when possible involve a buddy; and 5) ask for the support you need.

For example, if your cholesterol numbers are too high, just choose one goal, like changing to a healthier diet or taking a walk every evening after dinner. Once one goal has been met, then work on the second.

The APA experts encourage patients not to give up. They say that minor missteps on the road to your goals are normal and okay—resolve to recover and get back on track.

“The foundation for cardiovascular health will always be based on a heart healthy diet and exercise program,” said Dr. Shah.

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.