Cholesterol is one of those words that grab headlines and spread panic among health-conscious readers. It’s good for you, it’s bad for you, you’re getting too much of the wrong kind – you may think you have heard it all before.
Well, we think it’s time for some facts about cholesterol, so you know why it matters for your health.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance made in the liver from fats in our diet. Although some foods contain cholesterol, most is made by our bodies.
We all need some cholesterol to remain healthy. It is used by the body in hormone and vitamin D production, to insulate nerves, in fat digestion and in making cell membranes.
But high levels of cholesterol in your blood increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, two of the major causes of death in the UK.
Good and bad cholesterol
Cholesterol made in the liver is carried around the body by two types of lipoproteins – high density lipoproteins (HDL) and low density lipoproteins (LDL).
HDL mops up cholesterol from the blood and takes it back to the liver. As it lowers the amount of cholesterol in your blood, your risk of heart disease is reduced. This is why HDL-cholesterol is often called “good cholesterol.”
LDL transports cholesterol from the liver to the rest of your body. If you have high levels of LDL-cholesterol in your blood, it builds up in the inside of arteries forming plaques. This causes narrowing of the arteries, or atherosclerosis.
The plaques can also make it easier for blood clots to form increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke. LDL-cholesterol is usually known as “bad cholesterol.”
So the more LDL-cholesterol in your blood, the greater your risk of heart disease. Ideally, we want to have more HDL-cholesterol and less LDL-cholesterol.
What levels of cholesterol are healthy?
If you had high levels of cholesterol in your blood, it’s unlikely you would know about it.
Most people with high cholesterol levels don’t have symptoms. The only way to find out is to have a simple blood test done by either your GP or local chemist.
A cholesterol blood test measures the total amount of cholesterol in your blood in units called millimoles per litre of blood or mmol/L.
To minimise your risk of heart disease, the government recommends that adult should aim for total cholesterol levels of 5mmol/L and less, and 3mmol/L and less for LDL-cholesterol.
Total blood cholesterol levels above 6mmol/L is considered high.
* Total cholesterol – less than 5mmol/L
* LDL cholesterol – less than 3mmol/L
* HDL cholesterol – more than 1mmol/L
Who should be tested for cholesterol?
Anyone can have a blood cholesterol test. Although two thirds of adults in the UK have blood cholesterol levels higher than 5mmol/L, your risk of having high cholesterol increases as you get older.
It is more important to get tested if:
* You are over 40
* Are overweight or obese
* Don’t exercise
* Have diabetes
* Have a family history of heart disease
* Have a family history of high cholesterol
* Have high blood pressure
Lifestyle factors to reduce your blood cholesterol
When it comes to cholesterol, the type of fat you eat is the biggest influence on blood cholesterol levels. Foods which contain cholesterol -eggs, liver, prawns- are relatively unimportant compared to these, unless you have a medical condition.
Saturated fats found in pastry, full fat milk and dairy products, butter, lard, cakes and biscuits made from butter, processed meats and sausages help to increase the levels of HDL-cholesterol.
Trans fats, found in foods that use hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils have the same effect on cholesterol levels and should be avoided whenever possible. They are often found in deep-fried foods, some take-aways and baked products. So check the labels.
Healthier fats such as mono-unsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 and omega-6) can help to reduce LDL-cholesterol in your blood and increase the good HDL-cholesterol. It’s worthwhile switching to healthier fats and oils for cooking such as olive oil.
A combination of maintaining a healthy weight, keeping active and cutting out the bad fats from your diet is the best way to keep cholesterol levels in check.