We’re talking cholesterol – the good news is that not all cholesterol’s bad for you – here’s why you need a certain amount in your diet.
Did you know that having cholesterol in your body is actually a good thing? It’s needed to strengthen cell membranes and make hormones, vitamin D and bile acids, which aid digestion. But too much cholesterol can signal that there is too much fat in the blood which can lead to blocked arteries in your body, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a soft waxy substance found in your body’s cells. It comes from two sources - most of it is made by the liver and the rest, dietary cholesterol, comes from food. Animal food sources such as meat, seafood, dairy products and any foods made with animal products contain cholesterol although plant foods are cholesterol-free.
There are two types of cholesterol: ‘good’ high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and ‘bad’ low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.
Cholesterol is an essential part of every cell and is needed to make certain hormones.
However, too much LDL cholesterol in the blood leads to ‘furring’ of the arteries and the development of plaques that can result in heart disease and stroke. HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, helps to remove LDL cholesterol from the tissues and deliver it to the liver, which dumps it from the body. LDL cholesterol accounts for most of the cholesterol in the blood and this is the real culprit behind heart disease.
Who does it affect?
People with Type 2 diabetes or existing heart disease may need to lower their cholesterol right away. Obesity has also linked to high cholesterol and increases LDL levels because of high fat levels in the body.
How to fight high cholesterol
Cholesterol-lowering drugs - statins - have been found to lower the risk of heart attacks but unless your cholesterol levels are sky-high experts agree on diet guidelines to reduce the amount of saturated animal fats (like high-fat meat and dairy) and trans fats (hydrogenated oils) in foods we eat.
A recommended diet should have less than 35% total fat with less than 7% of that as saturated fat and minimal trans fat. Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, grains and unsaturated fats, such as those found in nuts, can also help lower your LDL levels and boost the amount of HDL cholesterol.
Dietary cholesterol - found in egg yolks and shellfish is no longer seen as the problem it once was. Studies show it has a minimal effect on blood cholesterol since the body takes as much as it needs. One problem with fighting high cholesterol with diet only is that even if LDL levels decrease, HDL levels may drop too. And low HDL levels can cause an increase in heart disease. However, doing aerobic exercise along with making diet changes can prevent or decrease a drop in HDL levels.
Lifestyle changes to beat cholesterol
While following a low-fat diet will lower LDL levels, combine it with aerobic exercise and it will fall even further. But what really gives exercise the edge is its ability to keep HDL level high. Just 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days of the week can jump-start your HDL in the right direction.
Lose the pounds
Studies have found that a modest loss of just 10lb reduces harmful LDL cholesterol by 12% but actually increases beneficial HDL cholesterol by 18%. A great reason to lose weight!
Cut back on simple carbs
Cakes, biscuits and highly processed cereals and breads are high-glycemic foods that can lower your HDL and raise the levels of another harmful fat in your bloodstream, triglycerides.
Choose better fats
Cut down on the saturated and trans fats in your diet. These substances increase the bad cholesterol while decreasing your good cholesterol. Instead, switch to products containing unsaturated fats (olive, canola, flaxseed, etc). These may raise your HDL levels. However you still have to watch the number of calories you consume.
Eat more fibre
Stocking upon high-fibre foods such as oats, fruits and vegetables can help bring your LDL levels down even more than a low-fat diet alone. A diet that gets more than a third of its calories from high-fibre foods has been found to lower LDL cholesterol by 33%, according to studies.
Avoid lots of alcohol
It can raise HDL levels so drink in moderation and make sure you don’t go over recommended levels
Say no to smoking
By quitting, you can raise your HDL levels by about four points.
So how healthy are you?
Do you know your cholesterol number? If not, get it checked out soon.
Desirable <200 mg/dl Any number below 200 is good news!
Borderline 200 to 239 mg/dl Check out your levels every six months
High Risk >240 mg/dl Follow your GP’s advice on lowering your levels