In the past, cholesterol has been given a bit of a bad name. It’s been linked to heart attacks, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases. We’ve even gone as far as shaming eggs for containing cholesterol. Poor eggs. But, what is the basis of all this? What actually is cholesterol and should we fear it? In this article, I break down this complex topic and explain things simply. Find out if you need to be concerned about your cholesterol and if so, how you can lower it to keep your heart healthy.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is made in our liver, and found in some foods too. We need cholesterol for the production of important structural and functional components in our bodies. It helps make up our cell membranes, crucial hormones like oestrogen and testosterone, the bile acids that digest and absorb nutrients in our gut, and even vitamin D.
Cholesterol needs to be transported from the liver to different sites in the body via the bloodstream. This happens by packaging it into two different types of ‘vehicles’ called lipoproteins. One is called low density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called bad cholesterol, and the other is known as the high-density lipoprotein (HDL). The LDL-cholesterol is stickier and more likely to bind in your blood vessels. When you have too much LDL-cholesterol circulating in your bloodstream, you get a build-up of cholesterol-filled plaques inside your arteries. This is an ongoing process that begins during childhood and progresses into adulthood. These plaques are the foundations of cardiovascular disease and can eventually cause angina, heart attacks and most types of stroke.
HDL- cholesterol on the other hand, has the opposite effect. This type of cholesterol can reverse the nasty effects of the LDL- cholesterol and take it back to the liver to be degraded.
When should you be concerned about your LDL cholesterol?
High cholesterol can either be inherited or developed as a result of a few factors. Although those who are overweight are more likely to have high cholesterol, people of any body-type can be affected. Often, those who don’t gain weight easily are less aware of how much saturated and trans fat they are consuming and may be shocked if they have high levels. As you get older, your cholesterol levels will naturally increase but premenopausal women seem to have more protection than men due to the hormone oestrogen. In general, you may need to pay attention to your cholesterol levels if you tick any of the following boxes:
Little physical activity
Eat a diet high in saturated fats
Have underlying conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure
Have a family history of cardiovascular disease
Have a rare genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia. Read more here.
Which foods affect my cholesterol?
Some foods raise our cholesterol because they are high in saturated and trans fats. For example, meat and dairy products, cakes and biscuits, and hydrogenated fats like butter, margarine or coconut oil. It may be a good idea to replace these saturated fats with small amounts of unsaturated fats that can help reduce HDL cholesterol levels. Examples of these are vegetables oils (e.g. olive oil), nuts, seeds and oily fish (e.g. salmon).
Some foods contain dietary cholesterol, but have a lesser effect on blood cholesterol than saturated fats. These include, kidneys, eggs and prawns. The body tightly controls how much cholesterol is in the blood by regulating how much cholesterol is produced in the liver. When your dietary intake goes up, your body reduces the amount produced. This is why foods high in dietary cholesterol hardly have an impact on blood cholesterol and do not increase your risk of heart disease.
So, how can I reduce my cholesterol levels?
1) Eat less foods high in saturated and trans fats. For example, instead of regularly snacking on biscuits, try nut bars.
2) Reduce your alcohol and cigarette consumption.
3) Move more- even if it’s just an extra 10-minute walk a day.
4) Increase your fibre intake by eating more fruits, vegetables and wholegrains.
5) Think about consuming food products high in plant sterols or stanols (E.g. Benecol).
We shouldn’t be too scared of cholesterol. As long as we are boosting our levels of ‘good’ HDL and keeping the ‘bad’ LDL down through exercise and a balanced diet then we need not be concerned. If you have a family history of cardiovascular disease or high cholesterol, consult your doctor who can advise you on any appropriate lifestyle changes or medication to help bring your cholesterol levels down to a healthy range.
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This article was written by Nuna Kamhawi