As we grow older, many of us start to pay more attention to the lifestyle factors that can affect our health. Eating the right kinds of foods, avoiding stress, doing enough exercise … it can all feel a little complicated. Luckily, there’s lots of useful information and tips that can simplify matters and help make keeping healthy that bit easier.
To get you started, we’ve put together some basic background information on one important issue for good health: how to lower cholesterol. Read on to find out what cholesterol actually is, what the recommended levels are, and how you can help monitor and control your levels.
What actually is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance produced by the liver and used in a whole range of bodily processes. It’s an important molecule in the body, so we all need a little bit of cholesterol to get by. However, when cholesterol levels are elevated, they become one of the risk factors of heart disease. It’s important to remember that other factors will influence your risk of developing heart disease though, and you may need to make other lifestyle changes to lower the risk of developing it. That is why it’s important to be informed about staying within healthy parameters.
So what’s ‘normal’?
This brings us on to the second important question when it comes to cholesterol levels: what’s the recommended range? To know this you need to understand that the body actually produces two different types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, or “good cholesterol”, and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, or “bad cholesterol”.
In the UK, the NHS recommendations are that bad cholesterol levels should be less than 3mmol/L for healthy adults and less than 2 mmol/L for those with increased risks of other health problems. In contrast, good cholesterol should usually be over 1 mmol/L.
How to tell if you have elevated cholesterol levels
Elevated cholesterol itself is symptomless: you can’t tell if someone has higher levels just by looking at them. The only way to know if you have elevated levels is to make an appointment with a healthcare professional to be tested. As well as a GP, there are some pharmacies that will offer this service. The test itself simply requires a blood sample, which is then sent off for review in a lab.
How to lower cholesterol
If you have elevated cholesterol levels, your healthcare professional will most likely give you a few pointers on how to lower them. There are a few diet and lifestyle changes that can be made to help your efforts.
Swapping saturated fats for unsaturated fats can help lower cholesterol levels (see below), while a healthy, balanced diet overall helps to maintain healthy levels. Staying at a healthy weight through exercise and diet can also help you maintain good cholesterol levels.
There are also a few foods that contain substances that can help lower cholesterol alongside these things, if the right amount is eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet overall.
- Oat and barley beta glucan. You can often find these in oat and barley based foods, like porridge oats and other cereals. According to Heart UK, three grams a day can help lower cholesterol as part of a healthy, balanced diet – just check food packaging to find out how much beta glucan is in your meal.
- Plant sterols or stanols. These are naturally found in some vegetable oils, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains – but in such small amounts that you can’t get the amount needed to lower cholesterol just by eating these foods. Foods with added plant sterols and stanols can help, though. These include certain spreads, skimmed milk drinks, and even yoghurt drinks. According to Heart UK, eating5 – 2.4g plant sterols or stanols per day has been shown to lower cholesterol levels by 7-10% over 2-3 weeks, as part of a balanced diet. Again, you’ll have to look at the amount of plant sterols or stanols in each portion to know if you’re eating enough to help to lower cholesterol levels.
What’s the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat?
Before you can start swapping saturated fats for unsaturated fats, you need to understand the difference between them. Saturated fats have been linked with cholesterol, and swapping them with unsaturated fats can help lower bad LDL-cholesterol – but how do you do it?
Saturated fats are typically found in higher amounts in meat and full dairy products like milk, cheese, and butter. It can also be present in baked goods and meat-based processed foods, like sausage rolls. Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are most likely to be found in oily fish (like salmon or sardines), nuts, seeds, vegetable oil products, and avocados.
These are just a few introductory points about cholesterol levels, what influences them, and what you can do, but hopefully it’s helped you understand what you might be able to do to help lower your bad cholesterol levels. Before you make any change to your lifestyle, remember to consult your doctor first. They can check your cholesterol levels to see if they’re in the recommended range, and make recommendations for your next steps.