Cholesterol is a fatty substance produced by the liver that brings many important health benefits, such as making hormones and building cell membranes. Indeed, we need some cholesterol to stay healthy, though there are some forms which are considered bad for us. Changing what you eat, being more active, and stopping smoking can help get your cholesterol back to a healthy level.
If you have been advised to make dietary changes, there are a number of things to consider and several general rules to follow.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada says: “As a rule of thumb, steer clear of highly processed foods, even if they are lower in fat content. Low-fat or diet foods are often loaded with calories, sodium and added sugar.”
It says that it is also a good idea to add more vegetarian options like beans, lentils, tofu and nuts to your weekly meal plans, and “get in the habit of filling half your plate with vegetables and fruit”.
The organisation also explains: “In the last 20 years, the rules on healthy eating have shifted. Super restrictive diets aren’t sustainable or the healthiest choice.”
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The NHS outlines a number of other lifestyle changes you may be able to make to lower your cholesterol.
A key one is to cut down on alcohol. You should try to avoid drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week, and avoid binge drinking. You can ask your GP for help if you are struggling to cut down.
You might need medicine to lower your cholesterol if your cholesterol level has not gone down after changing your diet and lifestyle.
You may also need medicine if you’re at a high risk of having a heart attack or stroke, according to the NHS.
There are two main types of fat, which are saturated and unsaturated. Eating too many foods high in saturated fat can raise the level of cholesterol in your blood. The health body says most people in the UK eat too much saturated fat.
The American Heart Association says that in general, red meats (such as beef, pork and lamb) have more saturated fat than skinless chicken, fish and plant protein, and can raise your blood cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease.
Eating plenty of fibre helps lower your risk of heart disease, and some high-fibre foods can help lower your cholesterol.
If you’re concerned about your cholesterol, talk to your GP.
If you’re aged 40 to 74, you can get your cholesterol checked as part of an NHS Health Check.
The British Heart Foundation (BHF) recommends all adults have a cholesterol check at any age, even if they feel completely well. It should be repeated every five years – or more often if the test was abnormal.
The cholesterol blood test measures your levels of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and your total cholesterol to HDL ratio.
Your total cholesterol should be 5mmol/L or less for healthy adults or 4mmol/L or less for those at high risk.
You may also need to take medicines to lower your cholesterol. Statins are the most common medicine for high cholesterol, according to the NHS.
Statins work by reducing the amount of cholesterol your body makes.
The NHS says: “Like all medicines, statins can cause side effects. But most people tolerate them well and do not have any problems.
“You should discuss the benefits and risks of taking statins with your doctor before you start taking the medicine.”