Managing Your Cholesterol

We hear a lot about high cholesterol in relation to health and weight loss, but what does it actually mean? Everyone has cholesterol—it’s a kind of fat your body needs to create vitamins, cell walls, hormones and bile acids and help your metabolism work well. Cholesterol comes from two sources: your blood and your diet. Dietary cholesterol is found in animal products such as meat and dairy; blood cholesterol is produced in your liver or comes from what you eat.

Your body tries to balance these two sources by producing less cholesterol when you consume cholesterol-containing foods. If you end up with too much cholesterol in your bloodstream, it builds up inside your arteries, making it harder for blood to pass through; this causes your vessels to become narrowed or blocked, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.

You’ve probably heard the terms ‘good cholesterol’ (also known as high-density lipoproteins, or HDL) and ‘bad cholesterol’ (also known as low density lipoproteins, or LDL). Lipoproteins are responsible for carrying cholesterol through your body, and while it’s important to have both types, too much LDL can have serious health consequences.

HDL can actually help remove fatty build-up inside your blood vessels, carrying cholesterol back to your liver so it can be used by your body and lowering your risk of heart disease.

LDL carries cholesterol from your liver to your blood vessels; too much of it clogs your arteries.

Do I have high cholesterol?

While genetics certainly play a part in your cholesterol levels, lifestyle factors are also a significant contributor. Since cholesterol is found in fatty foods, those who consume too much saturated fat in products such as cakes and pastries, processed meats and deep fried foods are at greater risk of raising their blood cholesterol levels.

A healthy cholesterol level is no higher than 5.5mmols per litre. To check your levels, ask your GP for a blood test. If your cholesterol is above 5.5mmol/L, it’s time to take action!

How can I manage my cholesterol levels?

Lifestyle changes can make a huge difference to your blood cholesterol. Losing weight can lower your blood cholesterol, and a great way to start losing weight is to start eating right:

  • Watch your intake of foods high in saturated fats. Make sure you’re getting the balance right and consuming foods that contain polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, both of which can help lower your blood cholesterol. For more information about fat and its healthiest sources, check out my fat factsheet.
  • Eat plenty of fibre, which can also help lower blood cholesterol. Great sources of fibre include wholegrains, fruits and vegetables.
  • Up your soy intake (this can also be a great way of reducing full-fat dairy in your diet if you’re consuming too much). Swap cow’s milk and yoghurt for soy alternatives and include healthy proteins such as tofu and soybeans in your meals. If you’re not a fan of soy, try reduced-fat dairy products and polyunsaturated margarine instead of butter.
  • If you eat meat, choose lean varieties or those labelled ‘heart smart’ and avoid processed meats such as salami and sausages.

Remember that your body is actually capable of producing all the cholesterol it needs. But this doesn’t mean you need to cut anything out of your diet if you’re trying to lower your cholesterol (with the obvious exception of junk food)! Dairy, eggs and seafood all contain cholesterol, but they also have many health benefits, so there’s no need to remove them from your diet if you’re not vegetarian or vegan.

Aside from what you eat, making changes to your physical activity and other lifestyle habits can have a significant effect on lowering your blood cholesterol. Make sure you fit regular physical activity into your schedule, since exercise increases HDL and lowers LDL, and reduce your alcohol intake if you’re fond of a tipple. If you’re a smoker, now might be a good time to quit: smoking actually increases LDL’s ability to get into your arteries.