We have all heard about it, worry about it, but do we really know the truth about cholesterol? Lets take a closer look at what it is, the negative aspects, and how to manage. Did you know there are super foods you can eat lower cholesterol levels? Thats right, SUPER FOODS! More details below.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatlike substance that your body—mostly the liver—makes. Cholesterol is used to make some hormones, vitamin D, and bile acids. These help to digest fat. Cholesterol also is used to build healthy cell membranes (walls) in the brain, nerves, muscles, skin, liver, intestines, and heart. It only takes a small amount of cholesterol to meet all these needs. Your body makes enough. You don’t need any extra cholesterol from your diet.
Why is high cholesterol unhealthy?
Cholesterol causes a problem only when you have too much of it in your blood. Excess cholesterol is deposited in the lining of the arteries. This includes the arteries that feed your heart muscle. This narrows the inside of the arteries, through which blood flows. High blood cholesterol does not cause symptoms, so many people are unaware that their cholesterol levels are too high.
You should have your cholesterol checked at least every 5 years, starting at age 20. The most accurate test is a lipoprotein profile or lipid panel, a group of blood tests given after fasting for 9 to 12 hours. The results show:
- Your total cholesterol
- Your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. This is what’s deposited in your arteries
- Your HDL (“good”) cholesterol. This helps keep cholesterol from building up in your arteries
- Your triglycerides. These are another form of fat in your blood
Even without a lipoprotein profile, you can get a rough idea of your cholesterol health if you know your total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. Talk with your healthcare provider about your total cholesterol, HDL and LDL levels.
HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol
The higher your HDL cholesterol, the better. The HDL cholesterol helps protect against heart disease. You can increase your HDL levels by losing weight, if needed, exercising, and quitting smoking.
LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol
Having a high level of LDL cholesterol can cause fatty plaque to stick to the insides of your artery walls. The arteries get narrower and stiffer. This means less blood can flow through them. This process, called atherosclerosis, develops over a long time. It is especially dangerous if it narrows the arteries to the heart or brain. This creates a major risk for heart attack and stroke. Build-up of cholesterol in the arteries of the legs can cause leg pain and trouble walking, and other serious problems.
What causes high cholesterol?
Heredity, or what you inherit from your parents, is the main factor determining your cholesterol levels. Your diet is the second risk factor for high cholesterol. Foods containing cholesterol, saturated fats, or trans fats all contribute to your cholesterol levels.
Many foods that come from animals are high in both saturated fat and cholesterol. Some non-animal foods also are high in saturated fat. Foods with coconut and palm oils, trans fats, and hydrogenated vegetable oils like shortening and margarine raise cholesterol.
These are other factors that influence your cholesterol levels:
- Being overweight usually raises your LDL cholesterol. Losing weight may lower your LDL level and triglycerides, and boost your HDL cholesterol.
- Getting regular exercise may lower your LDL cholesterol and raise your HDL cholesterol.
- Age and gender.Until menopause, women usually have lower total cholesterol levels than men. After age 50, women often have higher total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. For both men and women, total cholesterol levels rise until about age 65.
- If you smoke, giving up tobacco will increase HDL levels.
The main goal of treatment that lowers cholesterol is to lower your LDL level enough to reduce your risk for developing heart disease or having a heart attack. The higher your risk, the lower your LDL goal will be.
What should you eat?
A heart-healthy diet means eating fewer foods high in saturated fats. These foods include fried foods, red meat, some cheeses, and most commercially prepared baked goods (cookies & doughnuts). Manufacturers are reducing saturated fats and trans fats in their products. Make sure you check nutrition labels and choose those with the least amount of saturated and trans fats.
A diet low in both saturated fat and cholesterol has less than 7% of calories from saturated fat and less than 200 mg of cholesterol per day. There should only be enough calories to maintain a healthy weight and to avoid weight gain. You might also increase the amount of fiber in your diet.
Fish is also a good choice. Many types contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. These may help lower blood cholesterol, blood pressure, and reduce your risk for blood clots.
You should also eat more vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.
If you eat red meat, here are some ways to decrease fat without giving up flavor:
- Use less meat in recipes.
- Have smaller portions of meat, and add more vegetables, grains, and fruit to a meal.
- Trim off fat from meat before cooking.
If you need help with your diet, talk with your healthcare provider about seeing a dietitian or nutritionist.
Other tips for reducing cholesterol
- Regular physical activity—30 to 60 minutes on most, if not all days—is recommended for everyone. It can help raise HDL and lower LDL cholesterol. For adults, 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise every week and exercises to strengthen muscles on 2 or more days a week.
- Maintain a healthy weight.Losing weight if you are overweight can lower your LDL cholesterol and raise your HDL cholesterol.
- Control your blood pressure.Make sure you get it checked when you have appointments.
- Don’t smoke.
- Consider medicines. If your cholesterol level remains high 6 months after you change your lifestyle, ask your healthcare provider about medicines that can lower your cholesterol.
Still looking for more?
Here are six SUPER FOODS to help reduce and manage your cholesterol levels:
Super Food 1 – Soya Foods
Being naturally low in saturated fat, soya foods help lower cholesterol. The special proteins in soya also appear to influence how the body regulates cholesterol too. Studies show you can lower your cholesterol by around 6% by including as little as 15g soya protein per day.
Choose from: soya alternatives to milk and yogurt, soya desserts, soya meat alternatives, soya nuts, edamame beans and tofu.
See below for suggestions of how to eat 15g of soya protein
Super Food 2 – Nuts
All nuts are rich in vegetable protein, fibre, heart healthy unsaturated fats, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium, natural plant sterols and a host of beneficial plant nutrients. 30-35g a day of nuts (a handful) has the potential to lower cholesterolby an average of 5%.
What is 30-35g of individual nuts – see below?
Super Food 3 – Oats and Barley
Both oats and barley are rich in a form of soluble fibre called beta glucan. Once eaten beta glucan forms a gel which helps bind cholesterol in the intestines and prevent it from being absorbed. It is recommended that we eat about 3g of beta glucan per day. Foods which contain 1g or more of beta glucan can carry a cholesterol lowering claim.
Super Food 4 -Foods fortified with plant sterols and stanols
Plant sterols are structurally similar to cholesterol and can be divided into sterols and stanols. Their cholesterol lowering effects have been known for some time.
Plant sterols/stanols are naturally found in a wide range of foods such as vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. However, for most people, it is not possible to achieve the optimum intake from ordinary foods.
An intake of 1.5-2.4g plant sterols/stanols everyday has been shown to reduce cholesterol by 7-10% over 2-3 weeks. They work by blocking cholesterol absorption in the gut. Visit our section on cholesterol-lowering plant sterols & stanols to find out more.
How much is 1.5-2.4g plant sterols/stanols – see below?
Super Food 5 – Fruits and vegetables
All fruits and vegetables are low in saturated fat so eating more helps to keep saturated fat intake low. Fruit and vegetables are also a valuable source of cholesterol lowering soluble fibres. Try to include at least one pulse (beans, peas, lentils) everyday. Other rich sources of soluble fibre include sweet potato, aubergene, okra (ladies finger), broccoli, apples, strawberry and prunes.
Super Food 6 – Foods rich in unsaturated fats
Keeping our daily saturated fat intake below 20g (women) and 30g (men) is vital for cholesterol lowering, but it is equally important to replace this saturated fat with modest amounts of unsaturated fats such as those found in olive, sunflower, corn, rapeseed and other vegetable, nut and seed oils. Other foods rich in unsaturated fats include vegetable spreads, avocado, oily fish and nuts. Avoid coconut and palm oil as, unlike other these vegetable oils, they are rich in saturated fats.