Cholesterol is an important substance in our bodies that, for the most part, occurs naturally. It helps our bodies make hormones, process vitamin D, build cells and create substances that help us digest food. Cholesterol can become dangerous, though, when the levels in our blood stream get too high.
Most of the cholesterol in our bodies—about 80%—is made by our liver. The other 20% comes from the foods we eat. A person can’t tell if his or her cholesterol levels are too high, as there aren’t any noticeable symptoms. To determine your cholesterol levels you need to have a blood test done by your doctor involving a tiny sample of blood.
The test will analyze the two main components of cholesterol—low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
LDL is sometimes referred to as “bad” cholesterol, because at high levels it builds up and can block our arteries, preventing blood moving freely through our bodies. HDL is usually called “good” cholesterol, because its job is to carry excess cholesterol from other parts of our bodies, including the arteries, back to the liver. Not only does the liver produce cholesterol, it also removes it from our bodies.
Your doctor may also assess your triglyceride and C-reactive protein levels. These are other indicators found in your blood test that could signal an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
The first step is to make a lifestyle change, and a big part of lifestyle is eating a healthier diet. Here are some things you should reduce or avoid to maintain healthy cholesterol levels:
- Saturated fats—These are found in animal-based foods such as meat and dairy products, and in some plant foods such as coconut oil, palm oil, and cocoa butter. Avoid or limit deli meats. Choose lean cuts of meat, or replace with fish and legumes (lentils, beans) instead.
- Trans fats—These are a form of man-made fat that is created during a process called hydrogenation. This is where liquid oils are turned into solid fat (such as some margarines.) While technically unsaturated, these facts act like saturated fats and raise blood levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Choose oils high in mono-and polyunsaturated fats such as canola, corn, or soya oil. Use in moderation.
- Avoid dairy products with high milk fat—choose 1% MF (milk fat) or cheeses with 15% MF or lower.
There are things you can add to or change in your diet which help the body eliminate excess blood cholesterol.
- Soluble fibre—This is found in oat bran, fruits, and vegetables.
- Unsaturated fats—These are found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish.
- Cooking—More often than not, opt to broil, bake, poach, or even microwave food instead of frying.
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Other tips to beat “bad” cholesterol
Keeping active and maintaining a healthy body weight will also help reduce cholesterol levels. And finally, quit smoking. It’s been found that tobacco reduces your level of HDL, “good” cholesterol, and raises your total blood cholesterol levels—which makes the perfect combination for increasing your total risk of having a heart attack.
If your doctor feels you need to be on cholesterol-lowering medication, it’s important to take it exactly as directed. For more information on cholesterol, or advice on making different lifestyle choices, come by the pharmacy and ask your London Drugs pharmacist.
This article is based on the patient information pamphlet and “My Cholesterol Journal”, available at your London Drugs pharmacy.