A Guide to Cholesterol

Cholesterol. It’s contained in eggs. It’s found in meat. It’s running through your bloodstream right now.

While there’s endless fuss over “dangerous” cholesterol, is it as bad as you think?

If you want to stay healthy, strong and independent, even as you age, it’s best to understand how your cholesterol levels affect your health.

What is cholesterol?

The word “cholesterol” can refer to two different things:

  • Dietary cholesterol, the cholesterol contained in food.
  • Blood cholesterol, which is what you refer to when you talk about “cholesterol levels” in your body. Blood cholesterol is a natural fat produced by your liver and found throughout your body. It is a soft, white, waxy substance.

Though often thought of in negative terms, cholesterol is very important to your overall health. For example, cholesterol is used to maintain cell walls, and to produce important hormones, Vitamin D, and bile acids.

The problem with cholesterol…

The problem with cholesterol is that your liver already makes around 1000 mg of it per day, which is almost all your body needs to maintain these vital functions. So, due to a combination of dietary, lifestyle and genetic factors, many Australians have a blood cholesterol level that is higher than it should be.

A high blood cholesterol level increases your risk of atherosclerosis – the thickening of arteries, which can reduce or block blood flow to the heart, brain, eyes, kidneys, sex organs and other body parts. This, in turn, increases your risk of a heart attack, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, impotence and other blood circulatory problems.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there are two different types of blood cholesterol:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), often referred to as “bad” cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol are the main way that cholesterol contributes to atherosclerosis.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL), also called “good” cholesterol. High levels of HDL have a protective effect against heart disease by helping to reduce atherosclerosis.

Triglycerides are another form of fat made by the body. Your levels of triglycerides can fluctuate according to your dietary fat intake and, in some cases, excess levels may contribute to atherosclerosis. Excessive triglyceride levels can also lead to pancreatitis – inflammation of the pancreas, which is very serious.

What makes blood cholesterol levels unhealthy?

1. Saturated fat

Although dietary cholesterol intake increases the overall amount of cholesterol in your blood, saturated fat is the main contributor to a high LDL blood-cholesterol level. When you eat saturated fats you stimulate the production of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) in your body, which raises your blood cholesterol level.

Saturated fat is found in animal foods (beef, pork, lamb, dairy foods), tropical oils (palm, palm kernel, and coconut oil) and in hydrogenated vegetable oils, and is listed on all nutrition information panels.

2. Trans fats

Trans fats cause increases in LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels and a reduction in HDL cholesterol, meaning they should be avoided or minimised where possible.

Although trans fats have gained a lot of attention in the media lately, the Heart Foundation says that Australians consume more saturated fats than they do trans fats. Therefore, saturated fat intake has a greater overall impact on our health. Ideally, you should reduce your intake of saturated and trans fats to less than 10% of your daily calories.

Trans fats can be found in processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils such as vegetable shortenings (Copha, Kremelta), crackers, commercial cakes and biscuits, snack foods, and fried foods.

There is currently no legal requirement for trans fat to be listed on a product’s nutrition information panel. So, to find out if a product contains trans fat, look for  “partially hydrogenated vegetable oils” or “hydrogenated oils” listed in the ingredients section on the packet.

3. Dietary cholesterol

Dietary cholesterol is any cholesterol obtained through your diet alone, and not produced by your liver. Although dietary cholesterol increases your levels of LDL cholesterol and the overall amount of cholesterol in your blood, it does not contribute as significantly to a high blood cholesterol level as saturated and trans fats do. The Heart Foundation does, however, suggest that there is some evidence that “dietary cholesterol contributes to the development of coronary heart disease”.

Dietary cholesterol is found primarily in animal-based foods such as eggs, dairy products, meat, poultry, fish (although fish contains much less cholesterol than other animal products), shellfish, liver, kidney, sweetbread, and brains.

4. Genetic predisposition

Unfortunately, for some people, a strong genetic predisposition means their blood cholesterol level is always fairly high, regardless of their dietary patterns. These people must take extra care to minimise the amount of cholesterol and saturated fat in their diets. Of course, the opposite is also true; some people who eat high-fat and high-cholesterol diets still have low blood cholesterol levels. These people need to monitor their fat intake for other health reasons.

When to have your blood-cholesterol levels checked

If you are over 45 years old or are at high risk of developing coronary heart disease, it’s recommended you visit your doctor to arrange a cholesterol test.

Most people take a fasting blood test to determine their blood cholesterol levels, called a lipoprotein profile. This test measures total cholesterol, LDL and HDL cholesterol, triglyceride levels and glucose levels.

If, after reviewing your cholesterol test results, your doctor believes your cholesterol and triglyceride levels are not optimal, they will discuss treatment options with you. In most cases, this will involve dietary and lifestyle changes, as detailed below. If your triglyceride levels are high you will be advised to limit your alcohol consumption, as alcohol significantly raises triglyceride levels.

If you have coronary heart disease and have already been hospitalised due to heart problems, in addition to dietary and lifestyle changes, your doctor may also recommend you start on medication.

How to lower your LDL cholesterol level

The Heart Foundation advises that any lowering of a your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels is beneficial to your health. You can lower your LDL cholesterol level in the following ways:

1. Through your diet

  • Reduce your intake of saturated and trans fats to no more than 10% of your daily calories.
  • If you are at low coronary risk, it’s okay to eat a moderate amount of cholesterol-rich foods, but if your doctor advises your total cholesterol level is above five or you have other risk factors for coronary heart disease, you should restrict the quantity of cholesterol-rich foods you consume.
  • Choose to eat polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (such as nuts, seeds, oily fish and avocado) instead of saturated and trans fats.
  • Use margarine-style spreads instead of butter or dairy blends. Look for spreads which contain less than 1% trans fat and are also low in saturated fat.
  • Some spreads are enriched with plant sterols, which have been shown to lower cholesterol levels. However, you need to eat about a tablespoon of these spreads per day for three weeks to see a 10% reduction in your LDL cholesterol level. Also, as plant sterols lower the amount of vitamin A in your blood, it is advisable to add an extra serve of yellow or orange fruit or vegetables to your daily diet to counteract this effect.
  • When choosing meat, opt for lean cuts trimmed of all visible fat and buy skinless chicken.
  • Eat fish at least twice a week.
  • Choose low-fat dairy products and limit your cheese and ice cream intake to no more than twice a week.
  • Trans fats are found in many fast foods, fried foods, pies, pastries, and commercial cakes and biscuits, so avoid or minimise these foods.
  • Get into the habit of always reading food labels. Companies will attempt to hide “bad” fats by using clever marketing. For example, the packaging may say “cholesterol-free” but the product may contain high amounts of saturated or trans fats. Be aware of different names and phrases used to disguise ingredients which promote or increase your cholesterol levels.
  • Make sure you’re eating enough carbohydrates (40-60% of your calories should come from carbohydrates) as they can help to lower your LDL cholesterol level.
  • Eat high-fibre foods such as wholegrain cereals, breads, and rice, fruits and vegetables, and legumes. Fibre, especially soluble fibre, can help lower cholesterol by pushing it out of your body before it reaches your bloodstream.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. These contain vitamin E, vitamin C, beta carotene and antioxidants, which all help prevent cholesterol from moving out of your bloodstream and into the lining of the blood vessels.

2. Regular exercise

The other most effective way to lower your cholesterol levels is through exercise. Aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise per week. There are significant benefits to your overall health by engaging in just 30 minutes of exercise, most days of the week. Why not use your daily 10-15 minute breaks at work to take a stroll around neighbouring streets or take ten minutes of your lunch break to do the same!

3. Quit smoking

Smoking contributes to atherosclerosis and puts you at greater risk for heart disease. Quitting smoking is not an easy thing to do, but for the sake of your cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and lung and heart health, it’s well worth it. Talk to your doctor about support programs and nicotine replacements to help you in the quitting process.

4. With medication

Occasionally, medication is required when cholesterol reaches extremely high levels. However, lifestyle changes are still equally important – even when taking medication. Make sure you talk to your doctor about the risks involved with taking cholesterol-reducing medications, particularly if you plan to become pregnant. Also be aware that compounds in grapefruit can interfere with some cholesterol medications, so ask your pharmacist for advice when taking any medications.

Cholesterol Mini-Counter

Cholesterol is found only in animal foods. Plant foods contain no cholesterol.



Yoghurt: 200g tub 10
Cheese: Cheddar, 30g, 1 thick slice

Cheddar, reduced-fat, 30g,1 thick slice



Ice Cream: 1 regular scoop, 50g

Soft serve, 1 serving, 100g



Eggs (chicken), 1 extra large, 56g

1 medium, 44g



Fats: Butter, 1 Tbsp

Cream, whipped, 1 heaped Tbsp

Margarine spreads, regular, 1 Tbsp




Meat: Steak, fillet, lean, grilled, 100g

Chicken, breast quarter, rotisseried



Fish: Canned, Tuna in brine, 100g

Crayfish, cooked, 100g

Prawns, shelled, boiled, 1 cup,100g




Offal: Brains (Lamb), simmered, 100g

Kidneys (Lamb), simmered, 100g



Fruit, Vegetables, Avocado, Nuts, Seeds, Grains 0

References :

This article was compiled in consultation with Calorie King experts and in reference to the following sources:

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, ‘Australia’s Health 2006,’  www.aihw.gov.au/publications

Heart Foundation, ‘Trans Fats, Frequently Asked Questions, September 2007,’ www.heartfoundation.org.au

Heart Foundation, ‘Dietary Fats Position Statement (1999),’ www.heartfoundation.org.au

Heart Foundation, ‘Lipid Management Guidelines 2001 – Summary Paper,’ www.heartfoundation.org.au

_’Fats – butter or margarine?’ Better Health Channel, www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au

_’A Good Spread,’ Choice, January/February 2005, www.choiceextra.com.au/images/pdfs/0501Spreads.pdf

Heart Foundation, ‘Position Statement Phytosterol/stanol-enriched foods’ www.heartfoundation.org.au

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