Cholesterol – Not Just the Bad Guy

The media made it out to be a villain. Scientists say it’s essential for life.  No wonder there’s confusion around cholesterol.

What is it, and how much do we need?

Cholesterol is a waxy white substance produced mainly by your liver. It’s also found in animal food products. Plant foods don’t contain any cholesterol.

Cholesterol is actually a structural part of every cell wall in your body, and acts as the building blocks for Vitamin D, reproductive hormones, and bile acids, which aid in the digestion of dietary fats. Basically, it’s essential to life.

There are two types of cholesterol:

  1. LDL-cholesterol. This is the “bad” cholesterol you’re used to hearing about. You want to reduce the LDL cholesterol in your blood.
  2. Protective HDL-cholesterol. This is the “good” cholesterol, which you should aim to support and maintain.

The body makes sufficient cholesterol for its needs, and doesn’t rely on obtaining any from your diet. Interestingly, dietary fats have a major influence on blood cholesterol levels – much more so than dietary cholesterol.

A high blood cholesterol level increases your risk of atherosclerosis – the thickening of arteries which can reduce or block blood flow to your heart, brain, eyes, kidneys, sex organs and other body parts. This, in turn, increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, impotence and other blood circulatory problems. So it’s very important to have just the right amount…

Other risk factors which increase your risk of atherosclerosis include high blood pressure, smoking, obesity and diabetes (uncontrolled).

Check Your Blood Cholesterol
Cholesterol Level(mmol/litre) Risk of Heart Attack
6.5 and over Very High
5.5 – 6.4 High
4.2 – 5.4 Average
Less than 4.2 Low Risk

Have your cholesterol levels tested regularly, particularly if there is a family history of heart disease or stroke.  If your blood test comes back with a high reading, see your doctor for advice.

All adults should have their cholesterol, HDL, and triglycerides tested at least every 5 years.

Dietary fats and blood cholesterol

The amounts and types of dietary fat you consume in your diet has the greatest influence on your blood cholesterol levels.

Fats found in food are a mixture of three basic types: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Animal fats mainly contain saturated fats, while plant oils and fish oils are mainly mono- and polyunsaturated sources of fat.

Saturated fats have subgroups known as long-chain, medium-chain, and short-chain fats. Most of the long-chain fats raise blood cholesterol levels, therefore increasing your risk of blood clots and thrombosis leading to artery blockage. Long-chain saturated fats are found mainly in full cream milk, cheese, butter, cream, fatty meats, sausages and processed foods. Try to limit your consumption of these foods to prevent excessive rises in your blood cholesterol levels.

Monounsaturated fats tend to lower your unhealthy LDL-cholesterol levels and maintain the protective-HDL (cholesterol in your bloodstream) – but only if they replace the saturated fats in your diet. Foods rich in monounsaturated fats include oils and margarine made from canola, olives or Sunola; peanuts, and avocados. If you’re swapping out saturated fats to include these sources of fat in your diet, chances are you’re improving the amount of “good” cholesterol in your body, while reducing the “bad” cholesterol in your bloodstream.

Polyunsaturated fats consist of two main classes. Firstly, omega-6 polyunsaturates tend to lower blood cholesterol. Rich sources include safflower, sunflower and corn oils.

Secondly, omega-3 polyunsaturated fats can lower your blood cholesterol, and also lower blood triglycerides, reducing your risk of thrombosis, heart arrhythmia, and artery spasms. Nutritious sources of omega-3 fats include extra virgin olive oil, oily fish (such as salmon or sardines), avocado, nuts and seeds.

It’s important to balance your intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fats for optimal health. Ideally, you should be consuming double the amount of omega-3s as you do of omega-6 fats. Studies have shown that Australians would benefit from increasing their omega-3 intake to achieve a better balance between the two.

Just remember, all fats are high in calories and should be eaten in moderation to support weight control.

Trans fats act similarly saturated fats, raising “bad” blood cholesterol.  These fats occur naturally in dairy products and some meats. You can also find them in some margarines and deep-frying fats. Australia’s intake of trans fats is relatively low, and continues to decrease. Many margarines available in our supermarkets no longer contain trans fats (and the levels in commercial frying fats are being reduced). Although trans fats can contribute to negative cholesterol levels, saturated fats are much more prevalent in our diets, and these are the major problem causing problems with cholesterol levels amongst Australians.

Diet hints to lower “bad” blood cholesterol levels

1. Eat more plant foods! This is key to improving cholesterol. Plant foods increase your fibre intake, so aim to add these to each meal, and even consider incorporating some plant-based meals each week. Particularly focus on increasing your soluble fibre intake. Foods rich in soluble fibre include dried beans, baked beans, lentils, chickpeas, hummus, nuts and seeds. Psyllium seed husks, psyllium-based cereals (e.g. Kellogg’s Guardian), and psyllium fibre supplements (e.g. Fybogel, Metamucil) are particularly rich in soluble fibre. Oat bran, rice bran and barley are also good sources, as are fruit, veggies and avocados.

2. Maintain a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, aim to lose weight by eating fewer dietary fats and exercising daily.

3. Reduce your saturated fat intake. Eat less dairy, and opt for low-fat or fat-reduced varieties of milk, yoghurt, cheese, and ice cream when you do consume them. Enjoy soy milk drinks – ideally those which contain omega-3 fats, such as Soy Extra. Be sure you’re not replacing saturated fats with refined or excess carbohydrates, instead replace them with healthy fats – especially polyunsaturated fats (omega-3s) such as oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocado and extra virgin olive oil.

4. Replace saturated fats in your diet with fats and oils rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fats; and carbohydrate-rich foods.

5. Eat less fat from meat and poultry. Choose lean cuts of meat and avoid the skin on chicken. Go easy on luncheon meats, salami and fatty sausages. Enjoy fish such as salmon regularly as your source of protein.

6. Eat less saturated fats from baked and fried takeaway foods. Avoid deep-fried foods, pies and sausage rolls. Go easy on cakes, pastries, biscuits/cookies. Choose lower fat takeaways options, or even better, cook your own meals at home using healthier fats and oils such as extra virgin olive oil – this way, you know exactly what’s in your meals.

7. Eat more soybean products, from sources such as tofu, tempeh (cultured soya beans) and soy flour.  Replacing some of your animal protein intake with soy protein can significantly decrease high blood cholesterol levels, as well as LDL-cholesterol and blood triglycerides. Soy products will also maintain your protective HDL-cholesterol.

Soy also may protect against certain cancers, however, these products contain phytoestrogens (plant-derived compounds which mimic the effects of oestrogen in your body) which may react with certain medications and reproductive hormones. So if you’ve struggled with hormonal imbalances or breast cancer previously, consult a doctor before including soy products or other phytoestrogen-rich foods.

8. Eat more fruit and vegetables in place of high-fat foods. Fruit and veggies contain valuable antioxidants, which may help prevent the oxidation of LDL-cholesterol. Oxidised LDL-cholesterol increases the risk of damage to the cells lining your arteries, and may initiate the atherosclerosis process so it’s definitely something you want to avoid.

9. Spread out your food intake. Try to eat five or six small meals per day, rather than just two or three large meals. Nibbling, rather than gorging, is useful for lowering blood cholesterol.

Try our top 3 cholesterol-lowering foods for extra support:

  1. Oats (great source of soluble fibre)
  2. Beans
  3. Oily fish (like salmon or sardines)

Heart attack warning signals

Many deaths from heart attacks occur before the victim can reach the hospital because they ignored warning signals, and therefore didn’t receive the medical help they needed.

Symptoms of a hear attack vary, and commonly include:

  • Chest pain, a vice-like squeezing or burning sensation in the centre of your chest or between your shoulder blades, or a feeling similar to severe indigestion.  The pain may spread to your shoulders, neck, jaw or arms.
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness, shortness of breath
  • Irregular pulse.

If you experience these symptoms yourself, or observe these symptoms in someone else, call an ambulance straight away.  Even if it turns out to be just nasty indigestion, it’s always better to be certain.

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