September is National Cholesterol Education Month. It’s used to remind Americans to have their cholesterol checked, so that they can take steps to better their health if needed. The American Heart Association advise that everyone over the age of 20 should be having their cholesterol and other risk factors checked every 5 years. Why is cholesterol important? Here’s Cholesterol 101: everything you need to know.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is either made by the liver or consumed from the diet. Your body needs a certain amount of cholesterol, as it is a key component in the membranes of your cells. It also plays a role in the production of vitamin D, hormones, and bile acids, which help you to digest fat.
High cholesterol is a condition where you have too much cholesterol in your blood. There are usually no signs or symptoms, so unless you are checking your levels regularly, you may not be aware that there is a problem. People with high cholesterol have an increased risk of circulatory disease, heart attack and stroke so it’s important you take steps to reduce you risk.
Types of Cholesterol
Cholesterol travels in the surrounded by a protein case known as a lipoprotein.
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are known as ‘bad’ cholesterol, as these are the type that build up in your arteries. It carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells that need it, however if you have too much of it builds up in the artery walls, which narrows the vessel over time, reducing flexibility. This may increase the risk of clots forming, which can lead to heart attacks or strokes.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) cholesterol is known as ‘good’ cholesterol. It helps remove the bad LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream. Having too little HDL cholesterol can also raise your risk of heart disease.
What influences the levels of cholesterol in the blood?
Factors that effect cholesterol levels can be divided into those you can control, and those you cannot.
Age and genetics are two factors you cannot control. There are different hereditary factors such as familial hypercholesterolemia, an inherited condition that causes high cholesterol from a very young age. Generally cholesterol levels will increase with age, so this is also a factor you cannot control.
Other factors you can control are your weight, dietary intake, physical activity levels and whether you smoke or not. Being overweight or obese, smoking and low physical activity levels all increase the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood. The relationship between food intake and high cholesterol has been debated for many years. It was thought that cholesterol in foods such as eggs and shellfish contributed to high cholesterol in humans; however now we know that this is not the case. The latest American dietary guidelines released in 2015 confirmed this, stating that “available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol”.
How do I eat a diet to lower my cholesterol?
The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to 5 to 6 percent of daily calories and minimizing the amount of trans fat you eat. Trans fats are known to decrease the good cholesterol in your blood, and increase the bad. The FDA are working on removing transfats from the food supply by 2018, however until this happens it is important that you read the labels on your foods, and select products with as little trans fat as possible.
You should also aim to eat a diet high in soluble fiber. Choose foods that are high in soluble fiber such as oats, pulses, lentils, nuts, and plant foods. Soluble fiber can help lower cholesterol- try these pulse recipes to get started.
Remember that diet is just one part in an overall larger plan when it comes to managing your cholesterol. Discuss your options with your medical team to ensure you are taking the most effective steps possible.
For more information on reducing cholesterol through your diet, click here.