While you don't tend to test cholesterol until you reach your 40s or 50s, it’s vital to keep levels in check at every age, with experts urging us to stick to heart-healthy foods and avoid those high in cholesterol. But what exactly is cholesterol, where do you find it, and how do you keep levels low? We spoke to Dr Clare Morrison, GP at online doctor and pharmacy Med Express and Frida Harju, in-house nutritionist at health app Lifesum, to find out all you need to know…
What is cholesterol?
'Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that comes from two sources: number one, your body – especially your liver, which makes all the cholesterol you need; and number two, food from animals – such as meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products, foods that are high in saturated and trans-fat.' – Dr Clare Morrison
And why is it important?
'Your body needs some cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D and substances that help with digestion.' – Dr Clare Morrison
'Most of us are aware that our cholesterol is important for preventing heart disease in later life. However, what most don’t know is that we need to start thinking about and taking care of cholesterol levels much earlier than our 40s or 50s.' – Frida Harju
What types of cholesterol are there?
'There are two types of cholesterol – HDL, which is the good kind and LDL, which is bad. The reason LDL cholesterol is bad for you is because, when found in high quantities in the blood, it can create a type of plaque that starts to block the arteries, which causes increased blood pressure, making us more susceptible to blood clots, heart attacks and strokes as a result.' – Frida Harju
How can you prevent high levels?
'If you want to avoid high cholesterol, it's important to control your diet and avoid foods high in saturated fats. These include lard, full-fat cheese and milk, as well as coconut, palm oil and coconut cream. Other high-risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure or diabetes. Stick to a low-salt diet, including plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and limit the amount of animal fats. Keep your weight down and exercise for at least 30 minutes most days.' – Dr Clare Morrison
So now you know the facts, nutritionist Frida Harju shares some tips on how to lower your cholesterol levels and ensure your heart remains healthy…
How To Lower Cholesterol
The first step to lowering cholesterol is eating a healthy diet. You should cut back on foods that contain high levels of saturated fat, such as fatty meats, butter, pastries and creams. Instead, you should aim to eat more unsaturated fat, such as oily fish, nuts, vegetable oils and spreads, as it has been found to reduce levels of LDL.
Eating plenty of fibre has also been found to lower your levels of bad cholesterol. In fact, research has revealed people eating just five to 10 grams of fibre a day found their cholesterol levels to drop. Try foods such as beans, oats, lentils, dried fruit, wheat and some fruits like apples and pears. However, while eating fibre is good for you, don’t go overboard as it can cause bloating and irritation.
Fruit & Vegetables
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, aiming for five or more portions a day. For example, spinach contains plenty of lutein, which is thought to prevent cholesterol sticking to your arteries, thus reducing the risk of heart disease. Similarly, eggplants contain nasunin and phytonutrients, which reduce levels of cholesterol and improve blood flow. However, make sure not to fry your vegetables, as they lose their nutritional value and soak up the fats from the cooking oils instead.
Getting enough exercise and staying active can also help. If you’re new to fitness, you should aim to do 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. This can be anything from taking a quick walk to going for a swim, effectively anything that raises your heart rate and makes you sweat. Additionally, as high levels of cholesterol have been linked to feeling stressed, exercise can help even further, as it produces endorphins, leaving you feeling happy and calm.