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High cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease, which is the number one cause of premature death. According to statistics from the charity organisation Heart UK, more than half of all adults have raised cholesterol levels.
Lifestyle and dietary habits have a huge influence over cholesterol levels and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease or even dementia, so making changes such as exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet and avoiding smoking are essential.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood and in your cells. Your liver makes most of the cholesterol in your body and the rest comes from foods you eat. Your body needs cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D and digestive fluids, and for your organs to function properly.
There are two forms of cholesterol:
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the unhealthy kind of cholesterol often referred to as 'bad'. LDL cholesterol can build up in your arteries and form fatty, waxy deposits called plaques.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the healthy kind of cholesterol often referred to as 'good'. It transports excess cholesterol out of your arteries to your liver, which removes it from your body.
High cholesterol itself doesn't usually cause any symptoms, but it does increase your risk of serious health conditions. Over time, high levels of LDL cholesterol can damage your arteries, contribute to heart disease, and increase your risk of stroke.
Many factors can increase your chances of having heart problems or a stroke if you have high cholesterol:
Being overweight and not exercising affects the fats that circulate in the bloodstream. Carrying excess weight can increase levels of LDL cholesterol, while being inactive can depress protective HDL cholesterol. Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising can reverse these effects.
Certain foods have been shown to reduce cholesterol, and can be used alongside medication or as a natural way to reduce your cholesterol levels. Certain foods work in different ways to lower cholesterol by the effect of soluble fibre (removes LDL cholesterol from the body), unsaturated fats (rebalance cholesterol levels) and plant sterols, which block the body from absorbing cholesterol.
Oats for breakfast cereal, oily fish for red meat; there are plenty of delicious food swaps you can make to help balance your cholesterol levels.
Fibre is an important part of the diet, and many people don't get enough. The average intake of fibre in the UK is just two-thirds of the recommended 30g per day (which only 9% of men and 4% of women achieve).
Soluble fibre is particularly beneficial as it dissolves in the gut to form a thick paste that binds with cholesterol and cholesterol-like substances, preventing them from being absorbed. Studies suggest that by eating 3g of oat beta-glucan per day (2-4 portions of oat-based foods) may help to reduce LDL cholesterol by 5-10% over 4 weeks.1
Swap your usual cereal for something oat-based. Oats can be used to make porridge or soaked oats, and granola is a tasty option to top yoghurt. You can also add oats to breakfast smoothies.
Foods such as tofu, edamame beans and soy milk all contain soy protein, which is often regarded as helping to lower cholesterol and is a key part of the Portfolio diet. It is thought that consuming up to 25g of soy protein per day can help to lower LDL cholesterol by up to six percent.2
Try switching cow's milk for a soy alternative to increase your intake of soy protein. This alternative can be used in the same way as milk. Look for a brand that is fortified with calcium.
Chocolate is high in saturated fat, which can increase levels of LDL cholesterol if eaten in excess. Dried fruit and nut bars contain less saturated and more monounsaturated fats found in nuts.
Monounsaturated fats help to lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol. Various studies have shown how nuts including almonds, peanuts and walnuts in your diet (50g per day) can slightly lower LDL cholesterol by up to five percent.3
Dried fruits also have heart-healthy properties, as sultanas and raisins contain resveratrol, which is a polyphenol antioxidant thought to be associated with good heart health. Their soluble fibre content also helps to lower cholesterol by binding in the gut.
Cream is another food that is high in saturated fat, which can increase your levels of LDL cholesterol. Saturated fat is not all bad, and it does also help to lower triglycerides and nudge up levels of HDL cholesterol when eaten in moderation.
The role of saturated fat in heart disease is a topic that is often under debate, but limiting your saturated fat intake will help to maintain a healthy body weight.
Switching to low-fat yoghurt over cream is a simple food swap that can be used in the same way when cooking. You can flavour yoghurt with spices such as cinnamon, vanilla or lemon juice, which makes a nice accompaniment to fruit or fruit-based puddings.
Plant sterols are extracted from plant gums, and have been shown to help lower LDL cholesterol by inhibiting it from being absorbed in the body. These compounds are now added to many foods including spreads, milks, orange juice and yoghurt, and research has shown that consuming 2g of plant sterols per day can lower LDL cholesterol by around ten percent.4
Try swapping butter for a lower-fat spread fortified with plant sterols. Plant sterols are also available as a supplement.
Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and trout are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These fats can help to increase HDL cholesterol and reduce LDL cholesterol, as well as reducing triglycerides in the bloodstream. Swapping out red meat for oily fish means that you are not only increasing your omega 3 intake, but are also cutting back on saturated fat.
High cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease, but by changing the way you eat and adopting healthy lifestyle habits, you can reverse the risk and improve your cholesterol balance.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.
1Othman R et al. (2011). Cholesterol-lowering effects of oat beta-glucan, Nutrition reviews
2Ramdath D et al. (2017). Beyond the Cholesterol-Lowering Effect of Soy Protein: A Review of the Effects of Dietary Soy and its Constituents on Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease, Nutrients
3Mukuddem-Petersen et al. (2005). A systematic review of the effects of nuts on blood lipid profiles in humans, The Journal of Nutrition
4Gylling H at al. (2013). Plant sterols and plant stanols in the management of dyslipidaemia and prevention of cardiovascular disease, Atherosclerosis