Cholesterol is a fat-like substance circulating in the blood. The body needs a certain amount to maintain cell membranes and perform other vital functions, but high levels lead to blocked arteries, which can cause a heart attack.
Cholesterol is carried in the blood by two types of protein: low density lipoproteins (LDL), which carry three-quarters of the cholesterol, and high density lipoprotein (HDL). Total blood cholesterol is measured, and separate measurements are taken for LDL (bad) cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol. High LDL and total cholesterol levels increase the risk of a heart attack, as does low levels of HDL. Doctors recommend keeping total cholesterol below 5.6 millimoles per litre, ideally around 5.2 millimoles per litre, and your HDL level as high as possible.
What causes it
High cholesterol levels are often linked to a diet rich in the saturated fat found in animal foods such as beef, butter and whole-fat dairy products and in the coconut oil, palm oil and hydrogenated oils used in processed foods. Excess weight, smoking and lack of exercise also contribute to high cholesterol levels; genetic predisposition may also be a factor.
What can you do
- Reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet.
- Substitute oily fish for meat.
- Eat high-fibre foods (grains, vegetables and fruit).
- Use olive oil and monounsaturated spreads in place of butter.
- Take regular exercise to raise HDL.
There are many supplements and functional foods that are extremely effective in lowering cholesterol levels. Your nutritional therapist will be able to advise you on the products that are best for you. A good start is taking a high dose, good quality fish oil – containing at least 1 gram of EPA & DHA.