We often don’t think about our cholesterol levels until we have a high reading on a blood test after a routine visit to the GP. However, high cholesterol increases our risk of heart disease, so it’s important to take steps to reduce it.
While genetics can influence cholesterol levels to a degree, the good news is, simple diet and lifestyle changes can help stop high cholesterol.
What is ‘cholesterol’?
Cholesterol is a waxy form of fat that travels through our blood. Although there is a lot of negative connotations attached to cholesterol, it is actually very important for our health and wellbeing. Cholesterol is used to perform crucial functions within the body, such as building the walls of our cells, producing hormones and making vitamin D. As cholesterol is so important for health, it’s no surprise our body produces the majority of the cholesterol it requires on its own. We therefore only require small amounts of cholesterol from dietary sources.
As cholesterol is simply another type of dietary fat, it needs to be transported around the body. Just like oil and water don’t mix, cholesterol doesn’t move well through the blood unless it’s bound to a transporter. To help, our body calls up lipoproteins to get cholesterol to its destination. The two main types of lipoprotein are known as ‘low density lipoprotein’ (LDL) and ‘high density lipoprotein’ (HDL). LDL cholesterol is often deemed the ‘bad’ cholesterol, while HDL cholesterol is commonly known as the ‘good’ cholesterol. ‘Total cholesterol’ is the sum of your HDL and LDL.
If cholesterol is important for health, why is it ‘good’ and ‘bad’?
Lipoproteins have different concentrations of fat and transport cholesterol to different parts of the body. The lower the density of a lipoprotein, the more fat it contains. Therefore, LDL cholesterol is very rich in fat. LDL cholesterol delivers cholesterol to our cells and is associated with plaque build-up in our arteries – which can lead to heart disease. HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, helps collects cholesterol from the blood stream and deliver it to the liver for excretion.
Which foods naturally contain cholesterol?
Cholesterol is naturally found only in animal products
- Dairy products, eg, yoghurt, cheese, milk and cream, butter
- Shellfish and seafood, eg, prawns, crab, lobster, oysters, salmon, sardines
- Red meat
- Animal organs, eg, heart, kidney, liver
Above are some examples of animal product sources. Some health claims can be misleading when advertising cholesterol-free products. An avocado may claim to be a ‘cholesterol-free’ avocado, and while this is true, no other avocados ever contain cholesterol either.
Dietary cholesterol that we eat actually only has a very small effect on the body’s LDL cholesterol levels. Scientists now understand that it is high saturated fat intake that increases total blood cholesterol and LDL concentrations.
Foods that are high in saturated fat
- Fried foods, eg, deep-fried meats
- Fast food
- Processed meats, eg, deli meats like salami
- Baked items, eg, biscuits, cakes and pastries
- Ice cream
Replacing saturated fats with healthy unsaturated fats, known as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, helps to decrease our LDL cholesterol, consequently decreasing our total cholesterol count. Many foods that naturally contain cholesterol may be consumed as part of a healthy diet, however it’s best to choose options that are lower in saturated fat.
Foods that contain cholesterol but are low in saturated fat
- Lean meat
- Salmon, prawns, crab, lobster
What about eggs?
The humble egg is a powerhouse of nutrients. The white of the egg is mainly made up of protein and water, whereas the yolk is made up of a combination of fats, various vitamins and cholesterol. Despite being a food that contains high quality protein, important vitamins and is low in calories, eggs have received a bad rap because of their cholesterol content.
After a recent review of the latest research, experts released updated guidelines around egg consumption. There is now no limit on the recommended number of eggs healthy people may consume per week. However, they still suggest that for individuals with high cholesterol, it’s best to stick to seven eggs per week.
Top tips to help reduce high cholesterol
Go for healthy fats
- Swap your butter for a spread of avocado, natural nut or seed spread.
- Have fatty fish, eg, salmon or tuna 2–3 times per week.
- When cooking, swap your butter or coconut oil for olive oil instead.
Eat more fibre
- Soluble fibre binds to cholesterol and reduces the absorption into our blood stream.
- Sources include oats, legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and baked beans, and barley and wholegrain breads and pasta
- Fruits such as apples, grapes, strawberries and citrus fruits, and vegetables such as broccoli, sweet potato, carrots and turnips, are also good sources.
Include plant sterols
- These are found naturally in fruits and vegetables
- Fortified products include cereals, milk, yoghurt and margarine.
Increase your physical activities levels and, if overweight, aim to lose weight
- Start by increasing your incidental exercise such as walking and taking the stairs.
- Consider exercise as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience.
Concerned about your cholesterol levels?
If you are concerned about your cholesterol levels or another health issue, always speak to your doctor or another healthcare professional.
About the author
The Healthy Eating Hub
This article was written by an Accredited Practicing Dietitian from The Healthy Eating Hub. The Healthy Eating Hub is a team of university-qualified nutritionists and dietitians who are passionate about helping people develop long term healthy eating habits through offering evidence-based and practical nutrition advice that people can put into practice straight away.