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.
What is cholesterol?
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.
The different types of cholesterol
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.
|Total cholesterol levels||Under 5 mmol/l|
|LDL cholesterol level||Under 3 mmol/l|
|HDL cholesterol levels||Above 1 mmol/l|
|A triglyceride level||Under 1.7mmo/l|
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.
What to eat and what to avoid
If you suspect or are diagnosed with having unhealthy levels of cholesterol, consult your doctor on the changes you should make to your lifestyle and the foods you should eat and avoid. As a general guideline, the following foods are believed to either promote healthy cholesterol or are best avoided to keep levels in a good range:
- Eat a diet high in fibre and rich in fruit and vegetables.
- Soluble fibre - 20g daily. Soluble fibre is found in oats, oatmeal, barley, beans, pulses, fruit and vegetables. Soluble fibre can trap some of the cholesterol in our digestive system and excrete it before it is absorbed.
- Choose 2-3g of plant stanols and sterols a day. These 'functional foods' occur naturally in small amounts in a range of plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, cereals and vegetable oils. They have a similar structure to cholesterol and therefore actively block cholesterol absorption from the gut. This can help achieve reductions in LDL cholesterol levels in the blood.
- Choose healthier fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in olive oil, rapeseed oil, avocado, nuts and seeds.
- Cut down on alcohol.
- Eat oily fish regularly. Omega-3 fats found in oily fish can help to lower blood triglyceride levels. Include herring, mackerel, pichards, sardines, salmon, trout and fresh tuna. Aim for 2-3 portions a week.
Foods to avoid
- Cut back on saturated fat: cut off visible fat from meat and avoid fatty meat products such as sausages and burgers.
- Avoid butter, ghee and lard and opt for healthy spreads and oils.
- Avoid full-fat dairy products. Choose low-fat alternatives such as skimmed/semi skimmed milk and low-fat yogurt.
- Avoid cakes, biscuits, pies and pastries.
- Avoid pre-packaged meals and snacks.
What about the cholesterol found in foods?
The cholesterol found in some foods, for example eggs, offal and seafood such as prawns, does not usually make a great contribution to the level of cholesterol in your blood. If you need to reduce your cholesterol level, it is much more important that you eat foods low in saturated fat.
Other lifestyle recommendations for helping to lower cholesterol levels are as follows:
- Get 30 minutes of exercise that makes you out of breath 3-5 times a week.
- Keep your weight at a healthy level.
- Avoid smoking and drinking too much alcohol.
Once again it's about balance - the occasional cheese board or bangers and mash isn't going to harm you - however, a diet high in saturated fat is not recommended long term. Consume fat judicially, cutting down gradually so you learn to live with less.
Instead of frying foods, try other cooking methods like grilling, baking, steaming and poaching. Trans-fats are formed when vegetable oils are hydrogenated (reused and altered) to make margarines and processed foods. Avoid foods that have hydrogenated oils or hydrogenated fat in the list of ingredients and try to consume more whole foods.
Jo Lewin holds a degree in nutritional therapy and works as a community health nutritionist and private consultant. She is an accredited member of BANT, covered by the association's code of ethics and practice.
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