Reading Time: 4 minutes

We all need cholesterol in our bodies to keep them working properly. But too much can clog up our arteries and lead to serious health problems. Especially if we have more bad cholesterol than good.

By making some simple, positive changes, most people can keep their cholesterol levels healthy. Here’s everything you need to know about healthy cholesterol.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a blood lipid – a waxy, fatty substance that circulates in your blood. The liver makes, but is also found in animal-based foods. It plays an important role in the body – helping to build cells, make vitamin D, and a range of hormones.

You need some cholesterol in your blood to stay healthy — good cholesterol that comes from plants. But too much can lead to diseases of the heart and blood vessels. 

Good and bad cholesterol

Cholesterol travels through your blood on proteins called lipoproteins and there are two types. Low-density lipoprotein, LDL, is the ‘bad’ cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein, HDL, ‘good’ cholesterol. (It’s easy to remember them too as HDL being ‘healthy’ and LDL being ‘lousy’.)

LDL carries cholesterol to cells, but if there is too much in your system, it builds up and forms plaque. The term for this artery narrowing is atherosclerosis. When normal blood flow is blocked, heart attacks and stroke become more likely. HDL, on the other hand, carries cholesterol away from the cells. It takes it back to the liver where it’s broken down and moves out of the body as waste. 

Cholesterol is measured in millimoles per litre, and the lower your LDL number, the better it is for your health. The government recommends levels of 3mmol/L or less for healthy adults. For HDL an ideal level is above 1mmol/L. 

The total cholesterol number your doctor will give you is a collective measure of LDL, HDL, and other lipids. Official guidelines say that levels should be 5mmol/L or less for healthy adults. But rates in the UK are among the highest in the world, with three out of five adults at 5mmol/L or above.  

What causes high cholesterol?

Lifestyle factors that affect cholesterol levels include consuming too much saturated fat — the unhealthy type found in meat, eggs, dairy, pies, pastries, processed foods, fatty spreads, coconut oil, and palm fat. Smoking, drinking alcohol, and not being physically active can also increase cholesterol. Being overweight, particularly carrying excess weight around your middle, can increase the risk. So can an underactive thyroid, type-2 diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, and certain medications can also increase the risk.

You can’t change genetic risks, but you can change what you eat and the amount you exercise. 

Anyone can have high cholesterol – even if you’re young, slim, eat well, and exercise. That’s because lifestyle factors aren’t the only causes. You can also inherit high cholesterol, so be sure to discuss your family history with your primary care physician. The best way to find out is to get a test from a health care professional. There are cholesterol-lowering treatments available such as statins, but it may be possible to lower it naturally with healthy lifestyle changes.

Anyone can have high cholesterol – even if you’re young, slim, eat well and exercise (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Cholesterol in food

Eggs and organ meats were once the primary suspects for high cholesterol. But we now know that cholesterol is produced in the liver. Saturated fat and trans fat in the diet increase cholesterol production. If you eat a lot of fatty foods, cholesterol levels can rise to unhealthy levels. 

Cholesterol is only found in animal products – meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and eggs. There is no cholesterol in plant-based foods – even in high-fat plant foods such as avocados, nuts and seeds. So, it follows that a vegan diet is completely cholesterol-free. Although cholesterol in food is not as bad as previously thought, high-risk people should limit or avoid it.  

Trans fats are found at low levels in meat and dairy products. They’re also found in processed foods like baked goods or products containing hydrogenated vegetable oil. They also raise cholesterol levels, but many producers have now removed hydrogenated (hardened) vegetable oil from their products.   

Not all fats are created equal 

Government guidelines recommend reducing saturated fat by avoiding or cutting down on fatty foods. Replacing meat and dairy with polyunsaturated fat found in nuts, seeds, and plant-based oils, lowers cholesterol more than reducing the total amount of fat you eat.   

You don’t need to buy expensive foods, though. You can lower and maintain healthy cholesterol levels by eating a varied, wholegrain, vegan diet. A 2013 EPIC-Oxford study found that British vegetarians and vegans have a 32 per cent lower risk of heart disease than meat-eaters. This includes people who consume fish. The lower risk, according to the study, was likely a result of differences in cholesterol and blood pressure levels as animal-based foods increase both (as well as diabetes, obesity and certain cancers).  

All major health organisations agree that saturated fat is a risk factor for heart disease. The message is simple – to lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease, eat plant-based. And don’t forget to exercise regularly, too!

Foods that help lower cholesterol 

  • Oats – a small 50 gram-sized serving provides nearly five grams of fibre and you can boost this by adding dried fruit, nuts, a banana or berries and soya milk.   
  • Wholegrain foods – brown rice, wholemeal bread and wholewheat pasta can help lower cholesterol, mainly because of the fibre they contain. The average UK adult fibre intake is 19 grams per day, well below the recommended 30 grams. Swap refined white bread, rice and pasta for healthier wholegrain varieties.  
  • Pulses – peas, beans and lentils are especially rich in fibre and take a while for the body to digest, which means you feel full for longer and this helps if you want to lose weight. There are many to choose from: kidney beans, chickpeas, red, brown and green lentils – the possibilities are endless! 
  • Fruit and vegetables – make sure you get at least five a day – more is better! All fruits and vegetables are low in saturated fat and provide valuable cholesterol-lowering fibre. 
  • Nuts – many studies show that nuts are good for your heart. A small handful of Brazil nuts, cashews, walnuts or pistachios can help reduce abdominal fat, cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar as well as improving the balance of fats in the blood. Aim for around 28 grams a day, which is around a handful.
  • Soya – 25 grams a day of soya foods can help lower cholesterol. You can get that from 100g of tofu, a 200ml glass of soya milk and a small pot of soya yoghurt. Soya also contains fibre, unsaturated fats and a range of vitamins and minerals. Replacing meat and dairy products with tofu, soya milk and soya-based meat alternatives is a great way to lower your cholesterol.  

Find out how a vegan diet protects against heart disease here

This article was originally published by Viva! here

Dr. Justine Butler of Viva!

Dr. Butler graduated from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology and a BSc First Class (hons) in Biochemistry from UWE before joining Viva! in 2005. She currently researches, writes and campaigns for Viva!Health.