Cholesterol is produced by the liver and also made by most cells in the body. It is carried around in the blood by little ‘couriers’ called lipoproteins. We need blood cholesterol because the body uses it to:
Cholesterol is a white and waxy substance. There are two types of cholesterol:
Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – called the ‘bad’ cholesterol because it goes into the bloodstream and clogs up your arteries. High density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol – called the ‘good’ cholesterol because it helps to take the ‘bad’ cholesterol out of the bloodstream.
Health authorities recommend that cholesterol levels should be no higher than 5.5mmols per litre. Approximately 50 per cent of adult Australians have a blood cholesterol level above 5mmols per litre. This makes high blood cholesterol a major health concern in Australia.
The liver is the main processing centre for cholesterol. When we eat animal fats, the liver returns the cholesterol it can’t use to our bloodstream. When there is too much cholesterol circulating in our bloodstream, it can build up into fatty deposits. These deposits cause the arteries to narrow and can eventually block the arteries completely, leading to heart disease and stroke.
You don’t need to eat foods that contain cholesterol; your body can produce all the cholesterol it needs. High cholesterol foods are usually foods high in saturated fats. These foods should be extremely limited in a healthy diet.
The cholesterol in your diet comes mainly from the saturated fats found in animal products. All foods from animals contain some cholesterol. Foods from plants do not contain cholesterol. Other sources of dietary cholesterol are full fat dairy foods, eggs and some seafood.
The best way to maintain healthy levels of cholesterol in your diet is to limit foods high in saturated fats. Avoid:
- Fatty meats
- Full fat dairy products
- Processed meats like salami and sausages
- Snack foods like chips
- Most takeaway foods, especially deep fried foods
- Cakes, biscuits and pastries.
The most important thing you can do to reduce your cholesterol level is to maintain a healthy lifestyle. You should try to: Limit the amount of cholesterol-rich foods you eat. Increase the amount and variety of fresh fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods you have each day. Choose low or reduced fat milk, yoghurt and other dairy products or have ‘added calcium’ soy drinks. Choose lean meat (meat trimmed of fat or labeled as ‘heart smart’). Limit fatty meats, including sausages and salami, and choose leaner sandwich meats like turkey breast or cooked lean chicken. Have fish (fresh or canned) at least twice a week. Include foods in your diet that are rich in soluble fiber and healthy fats, such as nuts, legumes and seeds. Limit cheese and ice-cream to once or maximum twice a week.
Changing some of your lifestyle habits may also help to reduce your cholesterol levels. Suggestions include: Reduce your alcohol intake to no more than one or two drinks per day, and avoid binge drinking. Don’t smoke. Smoking increases the ability of LDL cholesterol to get into your cells and cause damage. Exercise regularly (for example, at least 30 minutes of brisk walking daily). Exercise increases the HDL levels and reduces LDL levels in the body. Lose any excess body fat. Being overweight may contribute to elevated blood LDL levels. Control your blood sugar levels if you have diabetes. High blood sugars are linked to an increased risk of atherosclerosis.
Some people believe that cutting out dairy foods altogether is the safest option, but this isn’t true. Dairy foods are an important part of the daily diet and contribute many essential nutrients, especially calcium. You should switch to low fat types, which will reduce the risk from saturated fats.
Some foods are high in cholesterol but they’re fine to eat in moderation, as long as your overall diet is low in saturated fats. For example:
Egg yolks – these are high in cholesterol but are rich in several other nutrients. It is recommended that you limit the number of eggs you eat to the equivalent of one a day (whole or in dishes).
Seafood – prawns and seafood contain some cholesterol but they are low in saturated fat and also contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Seafood is a healthy food and should not be avoided just because it contains cholesterol. However, avoid fried and battered seafood.
Some studies have suggested that eating oats and legumes may lower LDL cholesterol. 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 on cholesterol levels.
Plant sterols are found naturally in plant foods including sunflower and canola seeds, vegetable oils and (in smaller amounts) in nuts, legumes, cereals, fruit and vegetables.
For some people diet and lifestyle changes are not enough. High blood cholesterol levels are also linked to genetics. Some people inherit altered genes that cause high cholesterol, and this can usually not be changed by lifestyle or diet.
If you are at risk of coronary heart disease and your LDL cholesterol level doesn’t drop after scrupulous attention to diet, your doctor may recommend medications to force your LDL levels down. However, diet and exercise will still be important, even if you are taking medication. Your doctor may also refer you to a specialist who treats cardiovascular disease.
- Cholesterol is a fatty substance essential to many metabolic processes.
- Your body needs cholesterol, but it can make its own – you don’t need to consume cholesterol in your diet.
- High levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood have been linked to coronary heart disease.
- Foods high in saturated fats tend to boost LDL cholesterol.
- Fruit, Vegetables (Raw and Cooked) especially Leafy Greens and Exercise are essentials.