Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is carried around the body in the blood. Contrary to popular belief, the body produces most cholesterol naturally, and it is also found in some foods. When your doctor first mentions that your cholesterol levels are too high, many people are in shock. However, between 2011-2012 over one third of Australians aged eighteen and over had high cholesterol, which means you are most definitely not alone. High blood cholesterol is a risk factor for developing heart disease which kills one Australian every 12 minutes. For this reason, some doctors may suggest starting a medication, while others may trial a three to six-month lifestyle intervention including changes to diet. We now know that it is possible to lower your blood cholesterol levels naturally by making changes to your diet, which may mean you can avoid, or at the very least reduce your reliance on medication. But before you start saying goodbye to milk, cheese and eggs, have a read of our five top tips to help lower your cholesterol through diet and lifestyle.
1. Go easy on the grog
It makes sense that drinking too much alcohol may raise your blood cholesterol levels as alcohol is filtered through your liver, the same place where cholesterol is made. If your liver is too busy filtering that bottle of wine you polished off last night, it doesn’t have much spare time or energy to deal with your cholesterol. Excessive alcohol intakes can also increase your triglyceride levels, another harmful blood fat as well as increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, raise blood pressure and contribute to weight gain around the abdominal area. Consider a minimum of two alcohol free days per week and reduce your intake on drinking days.
2. Eat more (healthy) fats
Poly and monounsaturated fats can help lower levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol and increase levels of good cholesterol (HDL). They also have the potential to lower triglyceride levels, reduce blood pressure, improve blood vessel function and delay the build-up of fat in the arteries. These include oily fish such as tuna, mackerel and cod, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, olives, unsalted and raw nuts, nut spreads such as natural peanut butter and seeds such as chia seeds, flaxseeds.
3. Eat less saturated fat
Go easy on saturated fat found in fatty cuts of meat, chicken skin, processed meat (e.g. bacon, salami, burgers, sausages), fatty or deep-fried takeaway foods, pastry, palm oil, large amounts of coconut oil, coconut milk and cream and consume full-fat dairy in moderation. If you’re someone who only has full cream milk with their cereal and a couple of slices of cheese, then don’t stress about switching to low-fat. If you’re a dairy lover and consume copious amounts of it, it may be a good idea to cut back or switch to a low-fat variety.
4. Go easy on the sugar
Limiting your intake of added sugars such as those found in cakes, biscuits, lollies, chocolate and sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft-drink and energy drinks will not only improve your heart health but also your overall health. Don’t stress out about your 1-2 teaspoons of sugar in your morning coffee or banana at morning tea, we are talking about the large amounts of added sugar found in processed foods. Before you go to grab the sugar substitute, chemical and artificial sweeteners such as equal are just as bad for your overall health. Limit your intake of added sugar per day to 4 teaspoons or less.
5. Make fibre your friend
Fibre acts like a mop in the body and helps to lower levels of harmful cholesterol. Include a variety of soluble and insoluble fibre found in fruits, vegetables, legumes such as chickpeas, black-beans and lentils, barley, psyllium husk and wholegrain products such as rolled oats, good quality seeded bread, wholegrain pasta and quinoa. Adding a fibre supplement such as psyllium husk, Metamucil or a product called betaglucare available from most pharmacies is also a good idea to boost fibre intakes.
6. Add plant sterols
Plant sterols and stanols are naturally occurring compounds found in small amounts in plant foods such nuts, seeds and legumes, vegetable oils, breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables. They block the body from absorbing cholesterol which in turn lowers the levels of cholesterol circulating in the blood. They have been shown to help lower cholesterol levels by up to 10-15% when consumed as part of a healthy diet. You need to consume 2-3 grams per day in order to lower cholesterol which means you will need to consume products fortified with plant sterols to achieve this amount. This is equivalent to;
- 2 x cholesterol lowering weetbix
- 1 tablespoon of cholesterol lowering margarine such as Flora Pro-activ or Logicol
- 500-750mL of heart active milk
7. Get moving
Exercise helps to lower levels of bad cholesterol and increase levels of good cholesterol. Plus, its fantastic for reducing stress, improving mood, lowering blood pressure, boosting metabolism and improving our bowel regularity. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes per day.