What is cholesterol, and what does having high cholesterol mean?
Cholesterol is a type of fat that is made by your liver. It’s important for building things like hormones and for the production of vitamin D. But having too much cholesterol in your blood is associated with having too much inflammation in the body. For example, if inflammation is present in your blood vessel walls, cholesterol acts like a sticky plaster and builds up over time – and that’s why it can cause a structural concern.
Ideally your total cholesterol reading from a blood test should be no more than 5 (noting that the European standard is currently 4). You don’t have to wait for your GP to suggest it – if you’re concerned you can request a test, or arrange for testing through a private laboratory or a home test kit.
If avoid cholesterol and saturated fats in my diet, will this get my total cholesterol down?
Not necessarily. You may be surprised to know that the majority of cholesterol is actually manufactured by your body, and it can do this even if you stop eating the foods that contain it. This is because cholesterol is an important building block for hormones, and for the signalling that happens in your brain.
Saturated fat is also required by the body in small amounts to build hormones. There are at least 24 types of saturated fat, which have different effects on the level of cholesterol in your blood.
The biggest problem with removing fat and cholesterol from the diet is that your intake of trans fats and sugar can go up as you may find yourself reaching for heavily marketed packaged foods — and these are much more important factors in your risk of heart disease.
So what’s the secret to maintaining a healthy level of cholesterol?
The secret to keeping your cholesterol levels down is simply to enjoy a fresh, wholefood diet packed with vegetables, fruit and a moderate amount of red wine. After a heart attack it’s almost three times as powerful in preventing death as taking a statin.
Eating more unsaturated fats like the kind you find in avocados, nuts and seeds is very effective too. Unsaturated fats increase high density lipoproteins (HDL) which remove excess cholesterol from the blood.
Are there any lifestyle factors involved?
Regular exercise, reducing your alcohol intake, and keeping stress levels low are also important.
Stress is one of the biggest culprits, because it increases the production of hormones and therefore the level of cholesterol that is required to make them.
How can I go about implementing these suggestions?
- Eat real food that is as close to nature as possible – emphasising fresh vegetables and a little fruit. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to order a recipe box from somewhere like Abel and Cole (my favourite is the Delightfully Light box)
- Include porridge oats and ground flaxseed in your breakfast menu – the soluble fibre soaks up excess cholesterol and helps to keep your digestive tract and immune system healthy
- Eat red meat no more than twice a week
- Include beans and lentils in your diet – they’re rich in fibre and protein that contribute to digestive health, cholesterol management, and a healthy weight
- Enjoy a handful of nuts and seeds a day – studies show that eating nuts and seeds lowers “bad” cholesterol (LDLs), total cholesterol and triglycerides
- Eat oily fish that hasn’t been farmed
- Limit your consumption of food that comes in a package, fast foods and takeaways
- Enjoy just one small glass of red wine a day
- Find time each day to do something creative, listen to music, or connect with nature
- Enjoy regular exercise – a brisk walk at lunchtime is the best place to start
- Include foods and drinks that are high in antioxidants, such as dark berries and green tea
The good news is that several men and women I’ve worked with have managed to lower their total cholesterol from 7 to 5 in just a few weeks, so it doesn’t take long to make a big difference to your cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease.
Del Gobbo LC1, Falk MC2, Feldman R2, Lewis K2, Mozaffarian D3. Effects of tree nuts on blood lipids, apolipoproteins, and blood pressure: systematic review, meta-analysis, and dose-response of 61 controlled intervention trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Nov 11. pii: ajcn110965. [Epub ahead of print]
Grosso G1, Marventano S2, Yang J3,4, Micek A5, Pajak A5, Scalfi L6, Galvano F7, Kales SN3,8. A Comprehensive Meta-analysis on Evidence of Mediterranean Diet and Cardiovascular Disease: Are Individual Components Equal? Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2015 Nov 3:0. [Epub ahead of print]