Cholesterol travels around the body in our blood and it is present in our cells. We all need some cholesterol to stay healthy, but high levels of cholesterol can increase our risk of heart disease. Nearly half of all adults in the UK are estimated to have high levels of cholesterol in their blood. Many people are unaware that their cholesterol is high because there are usually no symptoms. In this healthy heart tip, we explain what cholesterol is and we provide some tips for keeping your cholesterol levels healthy.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance made in the liver and it is present in foods, such as eggs, liver and prawns. Cholesterol is needed in the cells of our body. It helps to make vitamin D and some hormones which keep our bones, teeth and muscles healthy. Cholesterol also helps our digestive system process the fats we eat. Having too much cholesterol in your blood can lead to a build-up in your arteries, which puts you at a higher risk of having a heart attack.
There are two main types of cholesterol. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) more commonly known as “bad cholesterol” and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) more commonly known as “good cholesterol”. Too much “bad” LDL cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease. The role of “good” HDL cholesterol is to transport excess cholesterol back to the liver. Therefore, it is important that you have enough “good” HDL cholesterol and not too much “bad” LDL cholesterol in your blood.
What can I do to maintain a healthy cholesterol level?
The cholesterol we eat in food has little impact on the level of cholesterol in our blood. Making some simple changes to your lifestyle can help reduce your cholesterol.
- Reduce the amount of fatty foods you eat
Saturated fat increases the amount of “bad” LDL cholesterol in your blood. Saturated fat is found in foods, such as meat pies, sausages, cakes, biscuits, butter, lard, hard cheeses (e.g. cheddar), and foods containing palm or coconut oils. Replace foods that are high in saturated fat with foods containing unsaturated fats such as, olive oil, rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds and oily fish (e.g. salmon and mackerel). Aim for at least one portion of oily fish each week
- Eat more fibre
High fibre foods can reduce your risk of heart disease and help lower the amount of “bad” LDL cholesterol in your blood. Good sources of fibre include fruit and vegetables (eat at least five portions every day), brown rice, wholemeal bread, oats, beans and pulses
- Get active
Aim to do 150 minutes of moderate exercise (e.g. brisk walking, swimming or cycling) or any activity which gets your heart beating faster. Active people have increased levels of “good” HDL cholesterol meaning their bodies are good at removing the “bad” LDL cholesterol away from the arteries
- Stop smoking
Smoking reduces the levels of “good” HDL cholesterol in your blood and this can result in higher levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol. If you would like to stop smoking, you can get help from your GP or the NHS Stop Smoking Service
- Reduce your alcohol intake
It is recommended that men and women avoid drinking more than 14 units of alcohol each week. Information on alcohol units can be found on the OneYou website: nhs.uk/oneyou/for-your-body/drink-less/know-your-alcohol-units/
- Take a test
It is recommended that adults over the age of 40, or anyone at high risk of heart disease should get their cholesterol levels checked. If you want a cholesterol check, you should speak to your GP. Anyone can have high cholesterol and it is very common. There are usually no symptoms so, unless you get a test, you may be unaware of your risk of developing heart disease.