Cholesterol is a fatty substance in the blood known as a lipid. It is mostly made by the liver but it can also be found in some foods. Although being vital for the normal functioning of the body, having excessively high levels of lipids in the blood can have serious health effects. Too much cholesterol in the blood can cause a narrowing of the arteries which may lead to serious heart and brain conditions.
Cholesterol is needed to:
- Insulate nerve fibres
- Make up the structure of the membrane of every cell in the body
- Produce bile acids
- Produce hormones
What is the difference between good and bad cholesterol?
Cholesterol cannot dissolve in water and therefore can only travel around the blood by molecules called lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoproteins in our blood: LDL and HDL.
LDL – Low density lipoprotein is the main transporter of cholesterol which carries the cholesterol from your liver to the cells that need it. If too much cholesterol is carried to the cells, this may lead to a harmful build-up in your blood leading to disease of the arteries. For this reason, LDL cholesterol is referred to as ‘bad cholesterol’ and you should always aim to maintain low levels.
HDL – High density lipoprotein transports cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver where it can be broken down and excreted from the body as a waste product. For this reason, HDL is referred to as ‘good cholesterol’ and higher levels are better.
Who is at risk of high cholesterol?
Factors that may increase your risk of cholesterol are:
- An unhealthy diet (particularly foods high in saturated fats)
- Smoking (prohibits the HDL from transporting cholesterol back to the liver)
- If you have diabetes, are obese or have high blood pressure
How to prevent high cholesterol:
- Avoid or cut down on foods that are rich in saturated fats
- Include small amounts of unsaturated fats as this type of fat can help to reduce cholesterol levels
- Increase soluble fibre e.g. whole foods and vegetables
- Cut down on alcohol
- Exercise regularly
Foods high in saturated fats:
- Fatty cuts of meat and meat products such as sausages and pies
- Butter and lard
- Cream, soured cream, creme fraiche and ice cream
- Cakes and biscuits
- Coconut oil and palm oil
Foods high in unsaturated fats:
- Oily fish
- Nuts and seeds
- Vegetable oils
- Sunflower, rapeseed and olive oil