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Cholesterol- What's the Story?

Cholesterol is an essential substance in the body. Mostly we make it ourselves, but it is also ingested as part of certain foods.

Cholesterol has some important functions:

- It makes up part of cell membranes

- It allows us to make Vitamin D

- It allows us to make certain hormones and

- it helps make up bile acids in the intestine for digesting fats.

There are 2 types of cholesterol- low density lipoproteins (LDL) and high density lipoproteins (HDL). Everyone has both types. To present the science in a very simplified manner, the LDL tends to stick around in your arteries and can contribute to atherosclerosis (build up of plaque which can eventually cause a blockage and a heart attack or stroke). HDL cholesterol is actually good at clearing fats out of the arteries, so it is better to have a higher amount of HDL than LDL. (Your doctor may talk about your HDL:LDL ratio)

High cholesterol (and especially a high LDL:HDL ratio) is a risk factor for coronary heart disease. It is caused by a number of things. Two of the most important contributors to high cholesterol are poor diet and lack of exercise- which of course you can do something about!

High cholesterol can also be inherited, it can arise from taking certain medications, from pregnancy or other conditions where female hormones production is increased, or from liver/kidney disease, and polycystic ovary syndrome.

High LDL cholesterol is also frequently seen in obese people.

Reducing your cholesterol levels is absolutely possible. Reducing the amount of fats in your diet and increasing fibre can be helpful. Being more active is also a great idea.

Cholesterol is particularly affected by:

Saturated fats (found mostly in animal foods such as meat, cheese, cream, butter, baked goods, chocolate and processed/fried foods but also in some oils such as coconut oil.)

Trans fats- these are modified fats used in the food industry and often found in processed and fried foods. Trans fats are known to be pretty unhealthy and the Australian government limits amounts that can be in foods.

Cholesterol- in animal foods- meat, eggs, dairy.

A Harvard Health Report suggests 11 foods which are particularly helpful in improving cholesterol levels and ratios. Some (such as oats) actually absorb cholesterol and help to transport it out of the body.

  • oats

  • barley and whole grains

  • beans

  • eggplant and okra

  • nuts

  • vegetable oil (olive, canola, sunflower)

  • fruits (mainly apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus)

  • soy and soy-based foods

  • fatty fish (particularly salmon, tuna, and sardines)

  • foods rich in fibre

And the foods which its best to avoid or minimise if you’re trying to improve your cholesterol levels are:

  • red meat

  • full-fat dairy

  • margarine

  • hydrogenated oils

  • baked goods

In addition you can buy specially adapted foods which contain plant stanols and sterols. These effectively ‘bind up’ cholesterol and remove it from the body. Typical foods which can bought with added stanols and sterols are certain spreads, milk, cereals and even orange juice. They will be marketed using phrases such as “cholesterol-lowering”. The important thing to note is that a certain level of stanols is required per day to reach an effective level to lower cholesterol, so make sure you read the label to see what that threshold is. You could of course combine products, such as a cereal plus a milk both containing stanols, to reach the threshold.

Although cholesterol is no longer considered such a great marker of disease risk, its associations are still strong. The foods which are recommended to keep cholesterol at healthy levels and in healthy ratios in the body are consistent with healthy diet recommendations and will contribute to overall health and lower risk of a number of chronic diseases; so what’s to lose?

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