You’ve been to the doctor for a check-up and routine blood tests reveal you have high cholesterol. It’s a result you can’t ignore, with long-term implications potentially leading to chest pain, heart attack and stroke.
Goulburn Valley Health Quit educator, health coach and registered nurse Shelley McFadzean and community health dietitian Alison Green offer tips and advice to Don readers to manage their cholesterol and remain healthy.
WHAT IS CHOLESTEROL?
Cholesterol is a waxy fat-like substance. The liver and intestines produce about 80 per cent of the cholesterol in our body, the rest comes from the food we eat.
Cholesterol is carried around the body in the blood by lipoproteins which are referred to as either low density or high density lipoproteins.
LDL is often referred to as ‘bad cholesterol’ while HDL is known as ‘good cholesterol’ for its role in collecting excess cholesterol from cells and transporting it to the liver for excretion from the body.
Triglycerides are another form of fat in the blood and can reduce the HDL cholesterol, these are made in the digestive system and are influenced by what you eat.
A small amount of blood cholesterol is required for important functions such as:
- building the structure of cell membranes;
- producing hormones such as oestrogen, testosterone and adrenal hormones;
- helping your metabolism work efficiently; and
- producing bile acids, which help the body digest fat and absorb important nutrients.
WHAT ARE HIGH CHOLESTEROL RISK FACTORS?
High cholesterol can sneak up on you, as there are no symptoms — but there are risk factors to be aware of such as diet, being overweight or obese, smoking and lack of exercise.
Cholesterol levels start to rise after age 20 so age is a consideration, and in some instances there is a genetic link. Heart Foundation research has revealed one in 250 Australians is affected by familial hypercholesterolaemia, a condition caused by a faulty gene, where the body is inhibited from removing enough cholesterol from the blood.
IS MEDICATION AVAILABLE?
To keep your LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels within the recommended range and to stabilise plaque in the arteries, your doctor can prescribe the most commonly used cholesterol-lowering medicines, called statins.
A common side-effect of these medications can be muscle aches and pains so if you experience these talk to your doctor for a different brand or type of tablet that may suit you better.
WHAT FOODS SHOULD I AVOID IF I HAVE HIGH CHOLESTEROL?
The types of fat in food affect our blood cholesterol levels. Saturated fat increases blood cholesterol levels and can be found in fatty meats, chicken skin, butter, full-cream dairy foods, deep-fried takeaway foods, commercially baked biscuits and pastries along with coconut and palm oil.
Reducing refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, sugary cereals, pastries, lollies and soft drink is also recommended.
WHAT FOODS SHOULD I EAT TO HELP LOWER CHOLESTEROL LEVELS?
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat have a helpful effect on blood cholesterol levels. When eaten in moderation, these fats have been associated with reductions in LDL cholesterol and increases in HDL cholesterol.
Unsaturated fats can be found in cooking oils such as sunflower, safflower, soybean, olive, canola and peanut, canola or olive oil margarine spreads, fish, nuts, seeds such as linseed, chia or tahini and avocado.
FACTS AND FIGURES
- In 2011–12, Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed 5.6 million people, or 33 per cent of Australians aged 18 and older, had high cholesterol.
- Australians living in regional and remote areas were more likely to have high cholesterol than their city counterparts.
- High cholesterol is most common in the 55 to 64 year age group, with a prevalence of 47.8 per cent.
Working on changing your lifestyle and taking your medications will reduce the future risk of heart attack, angina, heart failure and stroke, keep you out of hospital and increase your life expectancy.
- Stop or reduce your alcohol intake — no more than one or two standard drinks a day and avoid binge drinking. This may help lower triglyceride levels.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking increases the ability of LDL cholesterol to get into artery cells and cause damage.
- Exercise regularly, at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise such as brisk walking, or 15–30 minutes of vigorous exercise on five or more days a week. Exercise increases HDL levels while reducing LDL and triglyceride levels in the body.
- Reduce any excess body fat, as being overweight may contribute to raised blood triglyceride and LDL levels.
- Control your blood sugar levels if you have diabetes. High blood sugar levels are linked to an increased risk of atherosclerosis (or hardening of the arteries), heart attacks and strokes.
- The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends eating a variety of food from each of the food groups each day.
- Higher intakes of vegetables and fruits are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. High-fibre diets from wholegrains have been linked to reduced LDL cholesterol levels and reduced heart disease risk.
- Include more plant-based foods including vegetables, fruits and wholegrains such as wholegrain cereal, bread, pasta and rice, quinoa, oats, lentils and beans.
- Aim to include a variety of healthy protein sources including fish and seafood, lean meat and poultry (remove visible fat and chicken skin before cooking), legumes, nuts and seeds.
- Choose reduced fat or skim dairy products without added sugar, such as unflavoured milk and yoghurt, and cheese.