Not all cholesterol is bad. Cholesterol, a waxy substance produced by the liver from fatty foods, is vital for the normal functioning of the body.
Cholesterol travels around the body encased in proteins. There are two types:
- high density lipoprotein (HDL) is the so-called good cholesterol, and
- low density lipoprotein (LDL), known as bad cholesterol.
Cholesterol is deposited in the arteries where it is needed and the good cholesterol takes the excess bad cholesterol back to the liver, where it is either broken down or flushed out of the body.
Too much bad cholesterol can lead to gradual build-up of fat in the arteries. Over time, this can increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, such as coronary heart disease, as well as diabetes and stroke.
In England, cholesterol levels are above the recommended level of 5mmol/litre. Men have an average cholesterol level of 5.5mmol/l, and women have a level of 5.6mmol/l.
To ensure you have a healthy heart and arteries, your body needs a low level of bad cholesterol and a high level of good cholesterol.
“The most common cause of high cholesterol in the UK is eating too much fatty foods,” says Denise Armstrong of Heart Research UK.
A healthy diet can significantly help reduce your cholesterol level.
Fat in food is made up of a combination of saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.
Saturated fats can increase the level of bad cholesterol in the blood and increase the risk of narrowed arteries.
Foods high in saturated fat include: butter, hard cheese, fatty meat, biscuits, cakes, cream, lard, suet, ghee, coconut oil and palm oil.
Monounsaturated fats can lower bad cholesterol, while maintaining good cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats reduce total cholesterol.
Foods high in unsaturated fats include: olive oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil, nuts and seeds (walnuts, pine nuts sesame seeds), some margarines and spreads.
Armstrong recommends using rapeseed oil for cooking at a high temperature, such as frying or roasting.
“Olive oil burns at high temperatures and becomes unhealthy,” she says. “Use olive oil in salad dressing, mashed potatoes or to add flavour to dishes.”
Omega-3 fat is a particular type of polyunsaturated fat that can help to reduce fatty deposits in the blood, prevent blood clots and regulate the heartbeat.
Tips to reduce your cholesterol level:
- Cut down on saturated fats and replace them with small amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
- Avoid fatty foods such as pastries, crisps, cakes and biscuits and replace them with healthier options such as fruit or vegetables.
- Eat oily fish at least once a week. Oily fish such as herring, sardines, salmon, trout and fresh tuna, are the richest source of omega-3 fats.
- Foods high in soluble fibre such as porridge, beans, pulses, lentils, nuts, fruits and vegetables can help lower cholesterol.
- The cholesterol in eggs, liver and kidneys and some types of seafood, such as prawns, don’t have a great effect on cholesterol levels. It’s the saturated fat content that can cause problems.
“If you need to reduce your cholesterol level, it’s much more important that you eat foods that are low in saturated fat,” says Armstrong.
Substances called plant sterols and stanols, added to certain foods including margarines, yoghurts and milk drinks, can also reduce the level of bad cholesterol.
“Even if you do eat sterol-enriched foods, it’s still important to make sure you follow a healthy diet,” says Armstrong.
An active lifestyle can help to improve healthy cholesterol levels. Activities can range from low-impact brisk walks and cycling to more vigorous exercise such as running and dancing.
Thirty minutes of physical activity at least five days a week can help to improve your cholesterol levels.
“You can do the 30 minutes all in one go or in shorter bouts of at least 10 minutes a time,” says Armstrong.
“For it to count, you need to be active enough to make you feel warm and slightly out of breath but still able the have a conversation.
“At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on five or more days a week is all it takes for you to feel the health benefits.”
Armstrong says that inactive people achieve more immediate benefits from taking up exercise than those who are already fit.