Cholesterol facts and fiction

Many myths and fallacies surround cholesterol. So here we will attempt to sort out the fact from fiction when it comes to this confusing health issue.

What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a white, fatty substance found in your blood, which doctors usually call blood lipids.

Your body is very efficient at making its own cholesterol. Mostly, it’s made by the liver, but other cells can make it as well.

Why does your body make cholesterol?
Believe it or not, your body uses cholesterol for vital functions, such as:

  • building the structure of cell membranes (the outer, protective casing of cells)
  • making hormones
  • making vitamin D
  • producing bile acids, which are important for digesting fats and absorbing nutrients.

The thing is, your body doesn’t need much cholesterol to perform these functions. However, our modern lifestyle makes it too easy to eat cholesterol-rich foods and primes our bodies to make much more cholesterol than what is actually needed.

How does cholesterol behave in your body?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that doesn’t dissolve in blood. To be carried around the body and do its work, cholesterol binds to proteins in the blood. Once bound, it is called lipoproteins.

There are two types of lipoproteins; you may have heard these described as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol. Medically, they are:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – LDL carries the cholesterol from your liver to the cells that need it. But if there is too much LDL, it will build up as plaque along your artery walls and increase your risk of heart disease. That’s why LDL is called ‘bad cholesterol’.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) – HDL carries cholesterol away from your cells back to your liver. In the liver, it is broken down and passed out of the body as waste. That’s why HDL is called ‘good cholesterol’.

What should your levels be?
Generally, when your cholesterol level is tested, you will usually receive three numbers – one for each of your total cholesterol, LDL and HDL.

For each litre of blood, health authorities usually recommend that the levels be no more than:

  • Total – 5.5mmol for adults without risk factors
  • HDL – preferably 1mmol or more
  • LDL – 2.5mmol for adults without risk factors; 2mmol for at-risk adults.

Sometimes your triglyceride levels may also be measured. After you eat, your body digests the fats in your food and repackages the fat as triglycerides, which your body uses for energy. Any excess triglycerides are stored as fat, and can increase the risk of heart disease. Ideally, it is recommended that your triglyceride levels be no more than 1.5mmol per litre of blood.

If you’re aged 45 or more, the National Heart Foundation recommends you have your cholesterol levels tested regularly.

What if your cholesterol is too high?
High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease and some types of stroke. If your cholesterol levels are too high, you may be on medication to treat it. However, there are some diet and lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce cholesterol naturally and perhaps lower the dosage of medication you require.

Cut out trans fats
Trans fats are a particularly nasty fat that increases LDL, or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels and decreases ‘good’ HDL cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and diabetes. Trans-fatty acids are created by treating vegetable oils with hydrogen, which causes the liquid oil to hold its solid form at room temperature. This helps food products like doughnuts, biscuits and cakes hold their shape and extend their shelf life. Deep-fried food from takeaway restaurants also often contain trans fats. Check the ingredients list on packaged foods for ‘hydrogenated oils’ or ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oils’ and avoid foods with these.

Lose weight
It may sound daunting, but you don’t have to lose very much weight to significantly lower your cholesterol. If you are overweight, losing just 4.5kg can cut your LDL cholesterol by 8 per cent. An eating plan that allows 1000–1200 calories a day will help most women lose weight comfortably, while men can eat between 1200–1600 calories a day and still lose weight.

Exercise
As well as improving your diet to lose weight, you can also improve your exercise regimen. When you exercise regularly, your cholesterol numbers will improve. To protect your heart, get an average of 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity three or four times a week. A combination of aerobic exercise and strength training is the best way to reduce your heart disease risk.

Increase soluble fibre in your diet
Soluble fibre can help reduce the amount of cholesterol absorbed through the small intestine. Soluble fibre is found in oats, legumes (split peas, dried beans such as red kidney beans, baked beans and lentils), fruit, vegetables and seeds. Apples, prunes and beans are particularly high in soluble fibre. Foods high in these fibres can also help you feel full, reducing your desire to reach for unhealthy snack food.

Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, found mainly in fish and shellfish, have become one of the great weapons in lowering cholesterol. If you can eat fish between two to four times a week your cholesterol will drop, not only because of the omega-3 fatty acids, but also because it will likely reduce your red meat intake, which can be heavy in saturated fats. If that much fish in your diet seems like too much, you can always take omega-3 supplements such as fish oil or krill oil.

Spice up your life
Research shows that eating between half a clove and one full clove of garlic per day can lower your cholesterol by up to 9 per cent. Other herbs and spices that help improve cholesterol levels are cumin, ginger, black pepper, coriander and cinnamon. The extra seasoning also lowers your appetite, which can also help with your weight-loss objective.

Learn more at WebMD

How often do you get your cholesterol tested?

This article originally published as Cholesterol explained and How to reduce your cholesterol

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

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