Cholesterol is an essential part of our diet but excessively high blood cholesterol levels increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease which includes heart disease and stroke. The high level of cholesterol causes narrowing of blood vessels by laying down fatty material inside its wall and this produces heart disease.
Cholesterol is found in foods such as eggs and seafood but it is mainly made in the body from saturated fats in our diet. Our cholesterol level is not only affected by the amount of fat in our diet but also the type of fat consumed. One type of cholesterol (‘bad’ cholesterol) leads to the build up of fatty material around the blood vessel wall. Whereas, a different type of cholesterol is beneficial (‘good’ cholesterol) and reduces the deposition of fatty material in the vessel wall. Saturated fats, which are found in meat and dairy products, and hydrogenated fats, which are artificially produced in margarine and biscuits, contain the highest levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol. However, unsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease to an extent, as they are high in ‘good’ cholesterol.
High blood cholesterol level may purely be due to a high intake of fat in the diet, but other reasons include a family history, an underactive thyroid, chronic kidney disease or excessive consumption of alcohol. There are many ways of managing high cholesterol including lifestyle changes and drugs. For these reasons we recommend that you visit your GP if you feel you may have high cholesterol.
To improve your blood cholesterol:
• Eat a healthy, balanced diet, where no greater than a third of your daily calorie intake should be obtained from fat.
• Eat foods containing saturated fats and hydrogenated fats in moderation, such as dairy products, biscuits and cakes.
• Regular exercise can lower your total cholesterol level and also increase your level of ‘good’ cholesterol.
• Eat oily fish at least twice a week because it contains omega-3 fats which can help to lower levels of fat in the blood. If you are a vegetarian or do not like oily fish, you can take Omega-3 supplements, Omega-3 is also contained in rapeseed oil and walnuts.
• Eat a diet high in fibre, which is found in foods such as fruit, vegetables and beans and can help lower your cholesterol.
• Moderate your alcohol intake: men should drink no more than 3 units per day and women should drink no more than 2 units per day. (One unit of alcohol is defined as half a pint of beer, one single measure of spirit or one small glass of wine). Try to avoid drinking alcohol on at least one day a week. NB. Current thinking is that women should try and avoid drinking alcohol, as it has been implicated in breast cancer.
• If you are at high risk of cardiovascular disease or your cholesterol level is particularly high, your doctor may prescribe cholesterol-lowering drugs.
To ultimately lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, you may need to make other lifestyle changes that are as important as lowering your blood cholesterol level. Some of these measures may be to stop smoking, lose weight and exercise regularly.
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