What is high cholesterol?
Cholesterol is produced naturally by the body.
But when we get too much of it – usually due to an excess of saturated fats in the diet – it can clog the arteries and lead to heart disease and stroke.
The best way to avoid or reduce high levels of cholesterol is to eat a balanced diet including plenty of plant foods, and limit foods high in saturated fats.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance produced naturally by the liver and also made by most cells in the body. We need a small amount of blood cholesterol because it is used for many different things in the body, such as making hormones like oestrogen and testosterone and helping the metabolism work efficiently.
Cholesterol is carried around the body by lipoproteins. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is called the ‘bad’ cholesterol because an excess of it can clog the arteries. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the ‘good’ cholesterol, helps remove excess cholesterol out of the cells, including cells in the arteries.
It isn’t necessary to eat foods containing cholesterol – your body can produce all the cholesterol it needs. Eating too much high-cholesterol food will create an excess of it. All foods from animals contain some cholesterol – meat, eggs and full fat dairy foods. Foods from plants do not contain cholesterol.
Causes of high cholesterol
When high LDL cholesterol levels cause fatty deposits to develop in the arteries, it is more difficult for blood to flow through, which can lead to heart disease and stroke. Health authorities recommend that cholesterol levels should be no higher than 5.5 mmol per litre if there are no other risk factors.
Factors such as smoking, being overweight, or having high blood pressure or diabetes increase the risks associated with high cholesterol. If any of these factors is present, then the recommended aim LDL level is less than 2 mmol/l.
Symptoms of high cholesterol
There are often no symptoms or signs of high cholesterol – you can have high cholesterol and feel well. The only way to find out if your cholesterol is high is by having a regular blood tests to measure your cholesterol levels.
Treatment of high cholesterol
High-cholesterol foods are often foods that are also high in saturated fats. The best way to reduce your cholesterol level is to follow a diet plan that limits these kinds of foods. You should try to:
- Increase the amount and variety of fresh fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods in your diet
- Try to avoid takeaway food (especially deep-fried food), snack foods, cakes, biscuits and pastries
- Limit fatty meats, including sausages and salami
- Choose low-fat milk and other dairy products (but don't cut out dairy altogether)
- Have fresh or canned fish at least twice a week (but avoid battered and dried seafood)
- Include foods that are rich in soluble fibre and healthy oils, such as nuts, legumes and seeds
LDL cholesterol can be lowered by polyunsaturated oil (for example, sunflower or safflower oil). Eating oats and legumes can lower LDL cholesterol by five per cent. Food components like saponins (found in chickpeas, alfalfa sprouts and other foods) and sulphur compounds (like allicin – found in garlic and onions) may also have a positive effect in lowering cholesterol levels.
Avoiding or reducing alcohol intake, losing excess body fat and getting regular exercise are also key ways to control cholesterol levels.
High blood cholesterol levels often have a genetic component, and this cannot usually be changed sufficiently by lifestyle or diet.
In these cases, medications (usually statins) may be recommended to force blood LDL levels down.
Remember to have regular blood tests for cholesterol and talk to your doctor.
Further information and sources