Cholesterol: Healthy Eating
Cholesterol is a fatty substance produced by the liver and found in the blood. You can also get cholesterol from the foods that you eat; generally, this is described as ‘dietary cholesterol’. Dietary cholesterol is found only in animal products, anything that had eyes, or came from something with eyes will contain dietary cholesterol.
Cholesterol is not the nasty substance that it is generally perceived as, it is actually essential to our daily function. We use cholesterol for many different tasks within our bodies, forming the basics of many of our hormones is just one of the vital roles that cholesterol has. It’s when there is too much of the bad cholesterol (LDL) or too little of the good cholesterol (HDL) that it really becomes an issue.
Types of cholesterol
The two main types of cholesterol are:
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – also known as ‘bad’ cholesterol because it can add to the build-up of plaque in the arteries and increase the risk of getting coronary heart disease.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) – also known as ‘good’ cholesterol because it helps to protect against coronary heart disease.
Most of the cholesterol in your blood is made up of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol; only a small part is made up of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. We also need to understand there is an ideal ratio of the LDL to HDL, which represents low risk even if your total cholesterol is a bit higher than ideal.
You should ideally be aiming for a low LDL cholesterol and a higher HDL cholesterol.
The real issue with high cholesterol is that it is mostly symptomless and often people will not realise they have a problem until they have a trauma. The best way to see where your cholesterol numbers are is to have a blood test.
Causes of high cholesterol
Causes of high cholesterol include:
- Saturated fats and trans-fats – high cholesterol is mainly caused by eating foods high in saturated fats and trans-fats. Foods high in saturated fat include fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, butter, coconut oil, palm oil and most deep-fried takeaway foods and commercially baked products, such as pies, biscuits, buns and pastries.
- Cholesterol in food (dietary cholesterol) – this has only a small effect on LDL cholesterol. Saturated fats and trans-fats in food cause a much greater increase in LDL cholesterol. You can include some cholesterol-rich foods such as offal (liver, pâté and kidney) and prawns, as part of a healthy, balanced diet low in saturated fats and trans-fats. You can also eat up to six eggs a week as part of a healthy, balanced diet low in saturated and trans-fats, without increasing your risk of coronary heart disease.
- Genetics – your family history may also affect your cholesterol levels. Some people will have high cholesterol even if they follow a healthy, balanced diet low in saturated fats and trans- fats. These people may need to take cholesterol-lowering medicine as prescribed by their doctor.
Treatment of high cholesterol
We need to make lifestyle changes, especially in the foods we eat, as often this is where the primary issues are. Ensuring that you choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, eat smaller amounts of saturated fats and try to eliminate trans-fats all together can make a significant improvement.
If you are too high, or if you genetics are a bit unkind to you, you may need to take cholesterol medications called statins, to help you to manage your cholesterol and reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Cholesterol and food
You can help to lower high cholesterol or LDL cholesterol by changing some of the foods that you eat and following a healthy, balanced diet, which is low in saturated fats and trans-fats.
It’s important to replace foods that contain saturated and trans-fats with foods that contain polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Foods high in polyunsaturated fats include spreads and oils such as sunflower, soybean and safflower; oily fish and some nuts and seeds. Foods high in monounsaturated fats include margarine spreads and oils such as olive, canola and peanut; avocados and some nuts.
Increasing your fibre intake is also another important factor in helping lowering your cholesterol levels. Making sure you get a minimum of five serves of vegetables each day will help you control and lower your LDL cholesterol, as will adding some legumes or beans you diet.
Healthy eating is about enjoying foods from a variety of different food groups.
Tips to help you manage your cholesterol:
Use spreads and margarines made from the good oils such as sunflower or olive oil, and dairy blends that have earned the Heart Foundation tick.
- Use a variety of oils for cooking – some good choices include sunflower, soybean, olive, sesame and peanut oils, however be careful not to use the wrong oils when cooking at higher temperatures as they will change into the deadly trans fats
- Incorporate dried peas (such as split peas), dried beans (such as haricot beans, kidney beans), canned beans (such as baked beans, three-bean mix) or lentils into at least two meals a week. This will add huge levels of fibre to your diet
- Use salad dressings and mayonnaise that you make yourself, many of the over the counter models are normally full of sugar, flavourings and additives
- Have two to three serves (150g each) of oily fish every week. These are full of the omega 3 oils which will help boost your good cholesterol
- Select lean meat (meat trimmed of fat, and poultry without skin)
- Limit processed meats including sausages, bacon and deli meats such as salami
- Snack on plain, unsalted nuts and fresh fruit (eat two serves of fruit every day)
- Eat plenty of vegetables (aim for five serves of vegetables every day)
- Choose wholegrain breads, cereal, pasta, brown or wild rice
- Limit takeaway foods, such as pastries, pies, pizza, hot chips, fried fish, hamburgers and creamy pasta dishes, to once a week
- Limit foods such as the dips, chips and pâté
- Include two or three serves of plant-sterol-enriched foods every day (for example, plant- sterol-enriched margarine, yoghurt, milk and bread)
- Include up to six eggs into your weekly diet unless you have a predisposition for high cholesterol
- Consuming foods that are minimally processed and high in fibre, particularly soluble fibre, can also reduce the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood. These foods include fruits, legumes (chickpeas, lentils, four-bean mix and baked beans (low salt)) and whole grain cereals (oats and barley)