Why Your Blood Cholesterol Level Matters
Cholesterol is a silent killer. In Australia, high cholesterol is responsible for 36% of the years of life lost due to the most common type of heart disease (ischaemic heart disease).
Usually high levels of cholesterol do not produce any symptoms until advanced disease has set in, so regular blood tests to check your cholesterol levels are a good idea. Your doctor will be able to advise you on how often you should have these checks done.
If you have high levels of cholesterol in your blood, then fatty deposits (plaques) can build up in the walls of your arteries. If this process goes to far, then your blood flow can become fully or partially blocked. Also, bits of these plaques can break away from the artery wall, flow through your blood and then lodge in downstream arteries. These events can cause heart attack and stroke.
Types of Cholesterol
There are two types of cholesterol:
- Bad cholesterol (or LDL) – this is the type that gets lodged in your artery walls.
- Good cholesterol (or HDL) – this type mops up the bad cholesterol.
How To Improve Your Cholesterol Balance
The most important thing about your cholesterol level is the balance between your good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. Fundamentally, to improve your cholesterol balance you need to:
- Manage your diet
This helps to reduce your bad cholesterol.
- Exercise regularly
This helps to increase your good cholesterol.
Most cholesterol in your blood stream is made by your liver, but about one quarter comes from the food you eat. Here are some tips about what dietary changes you can make to lower your blood cholesterol:
- Maintain a healthy overall diet – please see Eating Well for more information;
- Maintain a healthy weight – see Losing Weight;
- Avoid foods high in saturated fats like cakes, biscuits and hot chips;
- Choose reduced fat milk;
- Choose lean meat;
- Remove the skin before eating chicken;
- Avoid butter and have poly- or monounsaturated margarine or oil instead;
- Eat more soluble fibre – it helps remove bad cholesterol (LDL) from your body. Soluble fibre can be found in foods like oatmeal, kidney beans, apples, pears and prunes;
- Eat more fish and omega-3 fatty acids – omega-3 fatty acids help reduce your blood pressure and your risk of developing blood clots. Some types of fish are particularly high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as mackerel, sardines and salmon. You can also take fish oil tablets to increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids;
- Eat a handful of unsalted nuts each day – Some nuts (like walnuts and almonds) can reduce your blood cholesterol;
- Use olive oil – it reduces your bad cholesterol without affecting your good cholesterol. Extra-virgin olive oil provides the greatest benefit; and
- Eat some foods with added plant sterols – the sterols reduce the amount of cholesterol you absorb. Some margarines include plant sterols.
For more information on the above tips, please see the Mayo Clinic’s: Cholesterol – Top 5 Foods to Lower Your Numbers and the CSIRO’s: Cholesterol Facts.
If your cholesterol levels cannot be adequately controlled by diet and exercise then medications are available to lower your cholesterol. These medications do not usually cause significant side effects, but can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease. Please consult your doctor for more information.
- CSIRO 2013, Cholesterol Facts, accessed 25 Feb 2014.
- Mayo Clinic 2012, Cholesterol: Top 5 Foods to Lower Your Numbers, accessed 25 Feb 2014.
- National Heart Foundation 2014, Fact sheet: Burden of Disease – Years of Life Lost (YLL), accessed 25 Feb 2014.