Doctors and health professionals are always talking about the risks of high cholesterol, but what does 'good' and 'bad' cholesterol actually mean, how do you know if your cholesterol level is high, and more importantly, what can you do about it if it is?
This article about high cholesterol and diet is written by Sarah Dawson, a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Private Health UK.
According to Flora, the healthy margarine brand, two out of three adults in the UK have raised cholesterol levels, but health professionals say it is possible to change your cholesterol level by following a healthy diet and making lifestyle changes.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance which is made naturally in the liver from saturated fats in food. Although cholesterol is an essential part of the body it is when there is too much that heart problems can occur.
The terms 'good' and 'bad' cholesterol refer to the way cholesterol is transported around the body. Cholesterol is carried through the blood stream via LDL (Low-Density Lipoprotein) and HDL (High-Density Lipoprotein) cholesterol carriers. Put simply, LDL is the 'bad' cholesterol, and 'HDL' the good - because LDL blocks the arteries, while HDL helps to rid the arteries of bad cholesterol.
A high level of LDL cholesterol in the blood can build up in the walls of the blood vessels and cause them to narrow and if the arteries feeding the heart get blocked it can cause a heart attack (a stroke occurs when an artery leading to the brain gets blocked). Therefore, it's important to keep the bad (LDL) cholesterol low and the good (HDL) cholesterol high, because a high level of HDL cholesterol helps keep the heart healthy.
Check your levels
Cholesterol is measured in units called millimoles per litre of blood, usually shortened to mmol/litre or mmol/l and the average cholesterol level is somewhere between 5.1 and 6.5 depending on age. However, new guidelines by the Joint British Societies suggest that a total cholesterol level of under 4 mmol/l and bad (LDL) Cholesterol of less than 2 mmol/l is necessary to keep your heart healthy. Check your cholesterol rate here with the Flora Pro-activ Cholesterol checker.
Cholesterol affects how every cell in the body works and is used to make other vital chemicals so the body still needs some in order to function, but that doesn't mean you should fill up on fatty foods to 'stock-up' on cholesterol. Dining on saturated foods, combined with a lack of physical exercise will increase your LDL levels and lower your HDL levels. Drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol per week also won't help your case. In moderation, alcohol can help increase the HDL (good) cholesterol but nevertheless it doesn't decrease the LDL (bad) cholesterol level. Too many pints in the pub can damage the heart muscle, increase blood pressure and lead to weight gain. Smoking reduces the HDL cholesterol and is linked to about twenty percent of heart disease deaths.
If you are obese or overweight, you are already likely to have an increased level of LDL and triglyceride levels (fatty substances found in the blood) combined with a decreased level of HDL, raising your overall blood cholesterol level. But if you lose weight your triglyceride levels will decrease and your HDL (good) cholesterol levels will rise.
Stress doesn't increase cholesterol levels, but it affects a person's mood and eating habits so when faced with pressure many of us turn towards comforting, fatty foods. This is a bad idea as the saturated fat and cholesterol in fatty foods contribute to higher levels of blood cholesterol.
Unfortunately, for some people, it's not just about watching their diet. Research has shown that it is possible to inherit a gene making you susceptible to high cholesterol levels. The genetic makeup you inherit from your family can affect the condition of your heart, so take note of any heart-health-related problems amongst your close relatives. If heart health problems run in your family, it is essential to take steps to keep your heart healthy and prevent problems in the future.
Evidence suggests a link between high cholesterol levels and a diet high in dietary cholesterol and saturated fat so reducing the total amount of fat you eat can help to keep your blood cholesterol levels down.
Although 'fats' have a bad reputation, not all of them are bad as some actually form an essential part of your diet, helping nutrients to be properly absorbed, aiding nerve transmissions or maintaining cell membranes. Get familiar with the cholesterol-friendly fats, which raise the LDL cholesterol levels and which increase the HDL levels. Contrary to belief, there is hardly any cholesterol in food apart from eggs, liver and kidneys, and seafood such as prawns but dietary cholesterol has little effect on blood cholesterol anyway, the issue is about the amount of saturated fat in your diet.
How to avoid saturated fats
The fats to avoid are saturated fats and trans-fatty acids. Foods high in saturated fat include red meat, meat pies and sausages, hard cheese, butter and lard, pastry, cakes and biscuits and cream including soured cream and all full fat dairy products. These can clog up your arteries and put a strain on your heart.
All fats are mainly composed of triglycerides, which are composed of fatty acids and these fatty acids are categorized as saturated, trans fatty acids, and unsaturated (which include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). All fats are high in calories so using a large amount of monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats to lower cholesterol is not the answer because you will put on lots of weight and push up your cholesterol levels.
However, eating oily fish like salmon, herring, sardines and trout regularly can help reduce the risk of heart disease and improve the chances of survival after a heart attack because the omega 3 fatty acids in oily fish has been proved to keep the heartbeat regular, reduce triglyceride levels, and prevent blood clots from forming in the coronary arteries. Equally, omega 6 rich foods like flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, corn oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, walnuts are good. A healthy diet includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, wholegrain bread, pasta and rice which is low in fat (especially saturated fat), and low in salt and sugar.