Spotlight on... cholesterol
Cutting back on saturated fats and introducing some key ingredients to your diet can help lower levels of bad cholesterol. Nutritionist Jo Lewin explains what cholesterol is, what your target levels should be and recipes to help you eat smart...
Cholesterol is a word that conjures an image of clogged arteries and heart attacks. The fact is, the body needs a certain amount of it for vital roles such as the manufacture of hormones, vitamin D synthesis and the insulation of nerve endings. While a small amount is vital to good health, the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that an elevated blood cholesterol level is one of the major risk factors for cardiovascular (heart and circulatory) disease.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the blood. A very small amount of cholesterol comes from food such as eggs, shellfish or offal - however, most cholesterol is actually produced by your liver when you eat foods high in saturated fat. Once inside the body, the liver turns saturated fat into cholesterol. Therefore, an excessive amount of saturated fat in the diet leads to increased cholesterol levels. Saturated fat is found in a range of foods including: butter, hard cheese, fatty meat and meat products, biscuits, cakes, cream, lard, dripping, suet, ghee, coconut oil and palm oil.
Cholesterol is transported in the blood by lipoproteins. There are two main types: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high density lipoproteins (HDL).
- LDL is the harmful type of cholesterol (think L=lousy!) Too much LDL will cause cholesterol to build up as deposits in the artery walls so it's important to keep levels of LDL within safe range.
- HDL is a protective type of cholesterol, transporting excess cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver to be broken down and removed from the bloodstream.
Having too much LDL cholesterol in your blood can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. It causes blood vessels/arteries to become narrowed or blocked with fatty deposits, which can lead to angina, heart attack or stroke. The risk is particularly high if you have a high level of LDL and a low level of HDL.
What causes high cholesterol?
The following may increase your levels of bad cholesterol:
- Too much saturated fat in the diet
- Being overweight/obese, especially around the waist
- Sedentary lifestyles
- Genetic condition - familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH)
- Age - cholesterol levels increase with age
Total cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglyceride levels can only be confirmed by a simple blood test. If you are experiencing symptoms of chest pains (angina), diabetes, leg pain when exercising, blood clots, headaches, breathlessness, nose bleeds and problems with sight ,it is advised you go to your GP for a blood test. For more information visit www.bhf.org.uk and www.heartuk.org.uk.
Lowering cholesterol through diet
Lifestyle is important for helping maintain healthy cholesterol levels. A diet containing a lot of saturated fat will increase your risk. The Portfolio Eating Plan is a specific dietary approach to lowering cholesterol. It involves the inclusion of a combination of soluble fibres alongside regular physical activity. For more information on diet and lifestyle changes to help lower cholesterol, visit Heart UK - the cholesterol charity.