There comes a point in everyone’s life when you should consider your cholesterol levels, and according to Helen Bond, dietitian and nutrition consultant to Benecol which makes foods fortified with plant stanol ester, that point probably comes earlier than you might think.
“You’re never too young to start thinking about your cholesterol levels,” says Bond. “There are no physical symptoms – you can be fat or thin, short or tall, young or old, and you can still have raised cholesterol, so it’s important to get your levels checked out.”
You can get your cholesterol levels checked for free at your GP if you’re aged 40-74, while people younger than that can buy a test from a chemist. It’s important to know your levels, because unhealthy cholesterol can have very serious outcomes.
“A quarter of all deaths for cardiovascular disease are attributable to high cholesterol levels, so it is potentially a hidden health hazard, and you might not know about it unless you started having symptoms of a heart condition it causes,” says Bond.
For most people, taking steps to improve your cholesterol levels starts with your diet, so we asked Bond for more information about what you should be eating and why.
What is cholesterol and is it needed by the body?
It’s a waxy substance we have in our bodies. It’s actually really important for us: it makes certain hormones, it’s used in the manufacture of vitamin D, and it’s used to make bile, which is used in the digestion of fat. The problem arises when we have too much of the wrong type of cholesterol. That can lead to the clogging of our arteries, and if you have too much cholesterol in your blood over time it greatly increases your risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases.
There is good and bad cholesterol – can you increase the amount of “good” with your diet?
Good or HDL cholesterol is not really something that depends on diet. Exercise is really good for boosting HDL cholesterol, which breaks down the cholesterol that’s deposited in our arteries and takes it back to our liver. Moderate amounts of alcohol can help too, within the guidelines of 14 units a week. HDL is quite a difficult one to push up. It’s the LDL one we can push down, and there are lots of dietary steps which help.
What foods can lower your bad cholesterol?
The key point is to have a heart-healthy diet. Low in saturated fat, full of fibre – we’re supposed to get 30g of fibre a day, but on average we’re only getting around 19g – from things like wholegrains, but also fruits and vegetables. Choose healthier oils like olive oil or rapeseed oil to push down saturated fat, and get unsaturated fats from nuts and seeds.
There are also extra things that nudge your cholesterol in the right direction, like oats and barley which contain beta-glucan fibre. Then there are things like plant stanols and sterols, that are found in our everyday diet but not in sufficient quantities. Foods that provide plant stanols and sterols in sufficient quantities can push your cholesterol levels down by about 7-10% when you’re having 1.5g to 2.4g a day.
Fortified products like spreads and yogurt drinks contain plant stanols and sterols. Are these foods the best source?
It’s good to get roughly 2g a day. In your daily diet you can get plant stanols and sterols but in very small amounts, like 30-50mg, so not enough to push our cholesterol levels in the right direction. Whereas a fortified mini yogurt drink would give you roughly 2g.
This is something to have as part of a healthy balanced diet though – it’s not a magic bullet that’s going to do it on its own.
Is the amount of cholesterol consumed through diet something to be concerned about??
Eggs, offal and shellfish are sources of dietary cholesterol, but for most it’s not dietary cholesterol that’s going to have the biggest impact on your blood cholesterol – it’s saturated fat, because we have so much more of it in our daily diet.
The heart health charities reviewed all the evidence around eggs and the vast majority of people can freely enjoy eggs in a heart-healthy diet. It’s only specific groups with genetic conditions that have to slightly reduce the amount of cholesterol that’s coming in from their diet. For the majority, dietary cholesterol doesn’t increase blood cholesterol.
How long will it take for your cholesterol levels to improve?
You can start to see results quite quickly. Dietary changes are the first line when trying to get your cholesterol levels into a healthy zone. If that doesn’t get sufficient results then sometimes GPs resort to medication, usually statins. These work to reduce the amount of cholesterol in the liver, but it’s still important to look at your diet – statins shouldn’t be seen as a magic bullet.