As this month is National Cholesterol Month, it’s time to bust some of those cholesterol myths and let you know what you can do to keep yours in check.
You’ve probably heard of cholesterol before but might be wondering what it is? Cholesterol is waxy, fat-like substance known as a lipid that is found in nearly all cells of the body. It’s vital for the normal functioning of the body and is needed to make vitamin D, hormones and bile for digestion. It’s made by the liver but is also found naturally in animal foods such as eggs, prawns and liver.
Cholesterol is transported around the body by proteins called lipoproteins, of which there two main types; LDL (low density lipoproteins) and HDL (high density lipoproteins). LDL cholesterol is often referred to as ‘bad’ because having high levels can lead to plaque build-up in your arteries and increase your risk of heart disease. Whereas HDL cholesterol is seen as ‘good’ because it carries cholesterol away from the cells towards the liver, where it’s broken down and excreted.
In the UK we are recommended to have a total cholesterol level below 5 millimoles per litre of blood ( mmol/L), with your LDL below 3 mmol/L and your HDL above 1 mmol/L. Over half of all adults in the UK have raised cholesterol levels and could be at risk of heart disease. However, what’s more important than your total cholesterol, is your ratio of total cholesterol to HDL, as this will affect the build up your cholesterol in your arteries. It’s worth nothing that having high cholesterol does not necessarily mean you will develop heart disease, as there are lots of other risk factors to consider including high blood pressure, diabetes, being overweight, lack of exercise, unhealthy diet, family history and smoking.
MYTH BUSTER - There are lots of conflicting messages in the media regarding diet and nutrition. We were once told that we shouldn’t eat eggs because they are high in cholesterol, whereas recent evidence suggests we can eat them every day. Many people believe if you have high cholesterol you need to avoid foods that contain cholesterol. However, foods that naturally contain cholesterol, such as prawns, eggs and liver, have little effect on blood cholesterol, instead it’s the amount of saturated fat in the diet that we need to be concerned with. Foods high in saturated fats such as butter, cheese, pies, sausages, cakes, biscuits, coconut and palm oil, should be limited in the diet as they increase the amount of LDL cholesterol in the body.
Luckily there a number of things you can do to reduce your cholesterol, which don’t involve taking cholesterol lowering medication such as statins.
1. Eat a small handful of nuts
Tree nuts such as almonds and walnuts have been found to lower LDL cholesterol by up to 20%. 1 They are also a great source of unsaturated fat, fibre, protein and a variety of micronutrients such as vitamin E. A small handful of roughly 25-30g of nuts a day is recommended.
2. Eat foods containing plant stanols and sterols
These are substances found in small amounts in plant foods such as grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. But you will mainly find them fortified in foods such as spreads and yogurts, such as Benecol. They have a similar structure to cholesterol so compete with cholesterol for absorption and help to lower cholesterol in the blood. 2
3. Eat oats and fibre rich foods
Oats contain a form of soluble fibre known as beta-glucan which helps to lower LDL cholesterol. Soluble fibre also helps to slow down the absorption of sugars from the diet which helps to control blood glucose levels. 3 Other foods rich in soluble fibres include beans, pulses, fruits like apples and bananas, and root vegetables like carrots and potatoes.
4. Replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats
Foods high in saturated fats, such as pastries, sausages and butter, increase the levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood. In the UK we currently each too much saturated fat and not enough unsaturated fat. Unsaturated fats, such as avocado, nuts and extra virgin olive oil, are often referred to as ‘good’ fats and evidence suggests that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats helps to lower cholesterol. 4
5. Eat oily fish
Oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel, contain the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA which help to lower cholesterol as well as lowering blood pressure, two risk factors for heart disease. They are essential fatty acids that our bodies cannot make and we must get them through food. Eating 2 portions of oily fish a week is recommended. Other sources of omega-3 include walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds. 5 You could also take supplements such as fish or krill oil.
6. Eat a Mediterranean diet
Studies show that people living in countries which border the Mediterranean have lower levels of heart disease than those living in the UK. This is because people living in these countries eat lots more fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses and fish. They also eat less saturated fat from dairy, fatty meats and pastry, but more monounsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts and seeds. 6
7. Get moving
Exercise has been shown to improve cholesterol by reducing LDL and increasing HDL cholesterol. 7 We are recommended to do 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week, which is enough to get your heart rate raised and break a sweat, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity, where your breathing hard and fast and your heart rate is significantly increased.
If you think you could be at risk for high cholesterol, please see you GP to get your cholesterol level checked.
Speak again soon,
Gemma, The Food Doctor nutritionist
- Berryman, C E. Preston, A G. Karmally, W. Deckelbaum, R J. and Kris-Etherton, P M. (2011). Effects of almond consumption on the reduction of LDL-cholesterol: a discussion of potential mechanisms and future research directions. Nutrition Reviews, 69(4), pp.171-185.
- Ras, R T. Geleijnse, J M. and Trautwein, E A. (2014). LDL-cholesterol-lowering effect of plant sterols and stanols across different dose ranges: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled studies. British Journal of Nutrition, 112(2), pp.214-219. (2011).
- Othman, R A. Moghadasian, M H. and Jones, P J. Cholesterol-lowering effects of oat β-glucan.Nutrition Reviews, 69(6), pp.299-309.
- Hodson, L. Skeaff, C M. Chrisholm, W A. (2001). The effect of replacing dietary saturated fat with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat on plasma lipids in free-living young adults. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 55(10), pp.908-915.
- Robert, L. and Rosenthal, M D. (2000). Effectiveness of altering serum cholesterol levels without drugs. Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Centre), 13(4), pp. 351-355.
- Renaud, S. De Lorgeril, M. Delaye, J. Guidollet, J. Jacquard, F. Mamelle, N. Martin, J L. Monjaud, I. Salen, P. and Toubol, P. (1995) Cretan Mediterranean diet for prevention of coronary heart disease. Americal Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61(6), pp. 1360s-1367s.
- Steven, Mann. Christopher, Beedie. And Alfonso, Jimenez. (2014). Differential Effects of Aerobic Exercise, Resistance Training and Combined Exercise Modalities on Cholesterol and the Lipid Profile: Review, Synthesis and Recommendations. Sports Medicine, 44(2), pp211-221.