Cholesterol

Cholesterol is important because it’s a product that helps our bodies function properly. We need to make sure we maintain the right levels of ‘good’ cholesterol, but we can also improve our health by reducing ‘bad’ cholesterol levels and keeping them to a minimum.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a white, waxy substance known as a lipid (fat), manufactured by your liver and found in every kind of cell in the body. It’s vital to well-being because it insulates nerve fibres, is an essential building block for hormones and also helps your body produce bile salts, which we need to absorb vitamins from food.

Cholesterol is carried around in your blood by molecules known as lipoproteins. When you hear about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol, people are usually referring to the two key types of cholesterol-carrying lipoproteins:

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL).

This is what’s referred to as ‘bad cholesterol’, because it’s thought to increase arterial disease. These lipoproteins carry the all-important cholesterol from your liver to cells around your body, but if there’s too much for the cells to use, it can build up in the arteries.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL).

Sometimes referred to as ‘good cholesterol’, this is thought to prevent arterial disease. It takes cholesterol away from the cells, back to the liver, where it is either broken down or passed from the body as a waste product.

Why is high cholesterol such a problem?

Evidence shows us that high cholesterol levels can cause a narrowing of the arteries leading to heart attacks and strokes. If you have high blood-pressure or smoke, the risk of coronary heart disease increases further. Blood clots, which often happen in the coronary arteries during a heart attack, are more likely to develop when arterial walls are ‘furred’ by a build-up of fatty (cholesterol) deposits.

How do I know if my cholesterol levels are too high?

We measure cholesterol levels in millimoles (mmol). Levels range from 3.6 to 7.8 mmol/litre, but a measurement of over 6 mmol/litre is considered high and is a risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease. The Government recommends a target cholesterol level of less than 5 mmol/litre. Your GP can advise you as to whether you should have your cholesterol levels checked. If this is needed, it is a simple blood test.

How can I reduce my cholesterol levels?

The good news is that simple changes to your lifestyle can help reduce cholesterol levels that are too high. We recommend a check-up with your GP before undertaking any changes to your normal diet or exercise plan.

  • Eat a healthy diet. You may know that liver, kidneys and eggs contain ‘dietary cholesterol’, but eating these foods has very little effect on your own cholesterol levels. Foods with high levels of saturated fats are the ones to avoid – these include red meat, pastry, hard cheese, sausages, butter, cream, cakes and biscuits. Most manufacturers clearly indicate levels of saturated fat content on their packaging.
  • Do more exercise. Physical activity increases your levels of good cholesterol (DHL) and decreases your level of bad cholesterol (DHL).
  • Give up smoking and reduce drinking. Excessive amounts of alcohol affect blood cholesterol. Bear in mind the recommended daily units, 3 to 4 units for men and 2 to 3 units for women.
  • Choose foods containing plant sterols. Studies show that plant sterols can lower cholesterol by reducing its absorption in the gut. Plant sterols occur naturally in vegetable oils, seeds and grains products, fruit and vegetables, and nuts. Eating 2g of plant sterols daily can reduce LDL or ‘bad cholesterol’ levels by about 10 to 15% when moving to a healthy diet.

Read about more Fats.

Fast facts

  • In the UK, two thirds of adults have a cholesterol level that’s higher than recommended levels (5 mmol / litre).
  • You can improve your cholesterol levels by swapping saturated fats for healthier alternatives, such as lean chicken instead of beef or fat-free yoghurt instead of sour cream.

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