Hello again! If you've been watching the news recently, you would have seen that cholesterol was the health focus this week. This insidious pathology is becoming quite concerning and health care professionals are worried that it isn't being taken seriously....
So what is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a type of fat that is part of all animal cells and is essential for many processes in the human body. Cholesterol is produced by the liver and transported in the blood by carriers called lipoproteins. From there it is used to:
build the structure of cell membranes
make hormones like oestrogen, testosterone and adrenal hormones
help your metabolism work efficiently, for example, cholesterol is essential for your body to produce vitamin D
produce bile acids, which help the body digest fat and absorb important nutrients.
Cholesterol is a white, insoluble waxy substance that comes in 2 forms that I'm sure most of you are familiar with. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is the 'bad' form as it carries cholesterol to the cells. When blood levels become too high, LDL cholesterol clogs arteries and can lead to cardiovascular disease such as heart attack and stroke. Foods high in LDL cholesterol includes those high in saturated and trans fats such as red meats, full fat dairy products, deli meats such as salami and fried foods like potato chips.
High density lipoproteins (HDL) are the 'good' form of cholesterol. Only 1/3 to 1/4 of all cholesterol is carried by HDL which acts as a 'scavenger' removing bad cholesterol from cells, where it returns it to the liver to be broken down and removed from the body. A healthy level of HDL cholesterol has been shown to help prevent cardiovascular disease. Foods containing good cholesterol include oily fish such as salmon and tuna, nuts and seeds such as walnuts and soy beans to name a few.
Australian Health Authorities recommend a blood cholesterol level of less than 5.5mmol per litre and if you have other risk factors such as high blood pressure, the recommendation is to have an LDL level less than 2mmol. Alarmingly, over half of the Australian population has a cholesterol reading of above 5mmol per litre, making it a huge health concern.
So why the concern?
High cholesterol is one of the major controllable risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In Australia, 90% of women have one risk factor for heart disease and 50% have two - the major one is cholesterol!
When blood cholesterol is high (especially LDL), it begins accumulating in the lining of arteries. The process of atherosclerosis (plaque buildup) takes years and often shows no symptoms until it is quite advanced. Over time, the accumulation of LDL cholesterol in the plaque causes it to intrude into the inside of the vessel, reducing blood flow. Eventually the plaque can rupture causing damage to the lining of the vessel and a blood clot to form. The combination of the plaque and subsequent blood clot can completely occlude an artery leading to heart attack and stroke - this is the most common cause of sudden heart attacks.
By monitoring cholesterol levels and controlling your fat intake, you can prevent atherosclerosis from occurring.
What can you do to control your cholesterol levels?
The most important thing you can do to reduce your cholesterol level is to maintain a healthy lifestyle. You should try to:
Increase the amount and variety of fresh fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods you have each day.
Choose low or reduced-fat milk, yoghurt and other dairy products or have ‘added calcium’ soy drinks.
Choose lean meat (meat trimmed of fat or labelled as ‘heart smart’).
Limit fatty meats, including sausages and salami, and choose leaner sandwich meats like turkey breast or cooked lean chicken.
Have fish (fresh or canned) at least twice a week.
Replace butter and dairy blends with polyunsaturated margarines.
Include foods in your diet that are rich in soluble fibre and healthy fats, such as nuts, legumes and seeds.
Limit cheese and ice cream to twice a week.
Changing some of your lifestyle habits may also help to reduce your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Suggestions include:
Cease alcohol consumption or reduce your alcohol intake to no more than one or two drinks a day. Avoid binge drinking. This may help lower your triglyceride levels.
Don’t smoke. Smoking increases the ability of LDL cholesterol to get into artery cells and cause damage.
Exercise regularly (for example, at least 30 minutes of brisk walking daily). Exercise increases HDL levels while reducing LDL and triglyceride levels in the body.
Lose any excess body fat. Being overweight may contribute to raised blood triglyceride and LDL levels.
Control your blood sugar levels if you have diabetes. High blood sugars are linked to an increased risk of atherosclerosis (‘hardening of the arteries’), heart attacks and strokes.
Have a good GP and regularly check in!
Lastly, be proactive! I try and get routine blood tests annually including fasting glucose tests and lipid profiles. Blood tests can reveal many things about your health which you can then try to control through diet and lifestyle. Prevention is better than cure!