What is Cholesterol?

cholesterolCholesterol is an essential body fat (lipid). It is carried around the body in the blood. It is a soft and waxy substance that is found in all cells of the body.

A tiny percentage of the cholesterol in your body is a result of diet. Most of the time, cholesterol is made in the liver. The type of cholesterol that is found in food is derived from meat, fish, and dairy products.

The body needs cholesterol to maintain healthy, working order. However too much of it flowing through the body in blood is then a health risk.

Cholesterol binds with special proteins called apoproteins. This allows it to enter the blood stream, as cholesterol itself is not water-soluble. The combination of cholesterol and apoproteins then becomes a package that is known as lipoproteins, of which two major types are of importance.

  • Low density lipoproteins (LDL), are often nicknamed “bad cholesterol” – this is because a build up of this type of cholesterol can block up the arteries and greatly increase the risk of coronary heart disease.
  • High density lipoproteins (HDL), are often referred to as “good cholesterol” – because they seem to be working to prevent the narrowing of the arteries by carrying the cholesterol in the body back to the liver for disposal.

The diverse nature of the two types of cholesterol means that it is vitally important to get the balance right between the two. Often the body takes control by making more if required and getting rid of any excess if not. But sometimes the levels of cholesterol can become unbalanced.

Levels of LDL cholesterol can be lower by following a low fat diet. Levels of HDL cholesterol can be increased by exercise.

What Causes Cholesterol to Be High?

In this country, the most common cause of high cholesterol is a diet that contains above average level of saturated fats. This kind of fat makes the body produce more cholesterol than it needs, or that it can easily dispose of.

In the UK we eat a lot of saturated fats. This may be one of the main reasons why Brits have one of the highest rates of coronary heart disease in the world!

High levels of saturated fat consumption can be even more dangerous when combined with other “bad” lifestyle choices. A cigarette smoker, for example will have double the chance of having a heart attack than a non smoker. High cholesterol and high blood pressure, when combined with smoking, can increase the chances of a heart attack by more than 8 times!

High cholesterol can also be hereditary and can run in families. Some people just cannot cope with even normal levels of cholesterol in the body.

What Happens If My Cholesterol Level Is High?

When too much cholesterol is in your blood you run the risk of hardened arteries as the unused cholesterol can build up in the artery walls, causing the arteries to harden and narrow. As a result of this narrowing, blood flow is to the heart is slowed down, a condition known as arteriosclerosis. In worst cases scenarios, the blood supply is completely cut off and a heart attack occurs. A stroke can take place if an artery in the brain becomes blocked.

How Do I Know If I Have High Cholesterol?

Normally, you won’t know if you have raised cholesterol levels as there are no obvious symptoms. Family history and lifestyle is important to consider here. Has anybody in your family had a heart attack before the age of 50? Do you have diabetes? Do you smoke? Are you overweight? If you believe that one or more of these factors may increase the chances of stroke or heart attack, you should go and see your doctor and get your cholesterol levels checked. This can be done by a blood test.

If you would like to regularly monitor your cholesterol levels at home, or if you would like to check at home before booking a GP appointment, a home blood test for cholesterol can also prove beneficial.

How Can I Reduce My Cholesterol Levels?

Diet and exercise can both help if you have high cholesterol. Diet is the first area that you should look at. most individuals can lower cholesterol levels by 15-20% if they start eating the right foods and avoid the bad ones, particularly those foods that contain saturated fats.

Food to avoid or eat in small quantities:

  • Fatty meats but if you do eat them cut off all the visible fat.
  • Sausages, duck and goose.
  • Pies and and all pastries.
  • Fat or oil when used for cooking.
  • Prawns, shrimp and fish roe.
  • All Fried foods
  • Dairy products such as full cream milk, single and double cream, cheese, butter and ice cream.
  • Egg yolks. No more than 2 a week.
  • Biscuits, sweets, cakes and chocolates.

Wherever possible, grill or steam meat instead of frying or roasting it. If you do roast meat, place it on a rack allowing some of the fat to drain off. Olive oil or vegetable oil is a much better choice than sunflower oil or frying.

Try eating some of these healthier foods:

  • Oil rich fish such s sardines, trout, pilchards and mackerel all contain Omega-3 fatty acids that are thought to help lower levels of LDL cholesterol.
  • Poultry  such as chicken, veal or turkey with its skin removed.
  • Skimmed or semi skimmed milk. Low fat yoghurts and spreads.
  • Foods that are high in polyunsaturated (found in vegetable oils, seeds and nuts) and monounsaturated (found in rapeseed oil, walnut oil, olive oil and avocado) fats.
  • Fruit and vegetables. Make sure that you eat 5 portions a day.
  • Garlic
  • Bread that is wholegrain
  • Cereals
  • Baked beans and red kidney beans
  • Pasta and rice

Image Credit: Juhan Soninon on Flickr