Cholesterol: are You at Risk?

by Daniel Sencier

Most people don’t know if they have high cholesterol, as there are no obvious symptoms. The first sign may be a heart attack!

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance made in your body, vital for the building and functioning of healthy cells. The health of your heart as you age is a cumulative process and the earlier you start to make healthy decisions, the more you will benefit. One misconception is, that you can ignore your levels for a lifetime and then take action after a bad test result. However, there may be a significant buildup of plaque and though medication may help, it could be too little, too late.

There are two types of cholesterol:

‘Good’ cholesterol, HDL (high-density lipoprotein)
• Helps remove cholesterol from arterial walls
• Cleans up unneeded cholesterol‘Bad’ cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein)
• Too much LDL can lead to cholesterol buildup and blockage in the arteries, which may result in stroke or heart attack.

What are the risks?

High cholesterol is one of the major, but controllable, risk factors for heart attack, stroke and coronary heart disease because it can both harden and narrow the arteries. 54% of heart attack patients have been found to have high cholesterol.

Causes of high cholesterol:

• Unhealthy diet
• Low physical activity
• Smoking
• Excessive alcohol
• High blood pressure
• Diabetes
• FH gene (inherited familial hypercholesterolemia)

What can you do to lower your risks?

Diet – think before you eat!

A small amount of fat is an essential part of any healthy diet and is also a source of essential fatty acids, which the body cannot make itself. Fat is crucial to the body’s absorption of vitamins A, D and E, as these are all fat-soluble vitamins; meaning they can only be absorbed with the aid of fats. Fat that is not used by the body cells to create energy is converted into body fat. All fat is high in energy and a gramme of fat provides 9kcal (37kJ) of energy, more than double that of carbohydrates and protein.

However, fat is broken down into two categories:
• Saturated fat or trans fat
• Unsaturated fat

Eating too much saturated fat, or trans fat, increases your cholesterol levels.

Cutting down on your saturated fat consumption and replacing it with foods that contain more unsaturated fat, will improve your cholesterol levels.

Recommended consumption of saturated fat per day:
• Men aged 19 – 64 years should eat no more than 30g a day.
• Women aged 19 – 64 years should eat no more than 20g per day.

Always consult a health specialist if your circumstances suggest you may benefit from individual advice on dietary control.

Saturated fat:

Most of the saturated fat in our diet comes from animal products, such as pork, beef, lamb, chicken, duck and other poultry (poultry skin is high in this fat).Dairy products, made from whole or even two percent milk, such as butter, cheese and cream cheese, contain significant dietary cholesterol. There are also plants that are high in saturated fat, and these include, palm oil, palm kernel oil, coconut and both coconut butter and oil.

Unsaturated fat:

The two unsaturated fats are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, and both of these may help to give you healthier cholesterol levels if used in place of foods containing saturated fats. You will find these healthier fats mainly in oily fish, such as salmon, trout and herring but also in avocados, olives and most nuts (unsalted). Other particularly good sources are vegetable oils, such as soybean, sunflower, olive and rapeseed.

Trans fat:

This is the one to avoid above all others! Hydrogen is added to liquid vegetables, turning them into a solid in a complex industrial process. Also referred to as ‘partially hydrogenated oils’ or ‘fatty acids,’ trans fats are found across the board in fried foods and very much so in bakery items, such as pizza dough, pastries, pasties, cakes and crackers.

Crucially, trans fat raises your bad (LDL) cholesterol and at the same time, lowers your good (HDL) cholesterol, a process closely linked to the increased risk of stroke and heart disease.

How to select low saturated fat products in the shops:

Look out for labels with ‘saturates’ or ‘sat fat’

High = More than 5g saturates per 100g
Medium = Between 1.5g and 5g saturates per 100g
Low = 1.5g or less per 100g

Some suppliers have coded these either red, amber or green, allowing you to quickly focus on the green, healthier foods.

Eliminating trans fat:

So high are the health risks from trans fat that for many years now, health organisations worldwide have taken steps to gradually squeeze this product from the food chain. Food manufacturers, national supermarket chains and restaurants are now behind a coordinated campaign of labeling, allowing customers to choose the healthier options, for both eating out and when at home.

So look out for labeling when you are buying your food at the shops and make decisions carefully in restaurants, to limit what you eat of these foods:

• Fatty meat and processed meats (e.g. sausages)
• Dairy products, including eggs, butter and cheese
• Food fried in saturated fat, especially trans fat
• Coconut and palm oils, and coconut cream
• Hard margarines
• Ghee
• Lard, dripping and goose fat

Tips when eating at home:

Mince – Use lower fat mince and if you’re worried that it’s too fatty, brown it first and drain the excess fat.
Milk – Use low fat -1% milk on cereals and in hot drinks.
Bacon – Back bacon is far less fatty and make sure you grill it.
Eggs – Poached or boiled eggs are great, if you fry, then do so without oil.
Chicken – Go for the leaner cuts, such as breast, but always remove the skin.
Chips – Better if cooked in the oven, shaken with a little sunflower oil and leave the skins on. Avoid deep frying.
Mashed potato – Pour in a little low fat (-1%) milk instead of whole milk or butter.
Pasta – Use tomato-based sauces, far healthier than creamy or cheese sauces.
Yoghurt – Look at the labels and choose a low fat / low sugar.

Tips when eating out:

Thai – Steamed or stir fried with fish, vegetables or chicken breast are better for you than curries, which usually
contain coconut cream/oil (high in saturated fat)
Chinese – As above, look out for stir fried low-fat dishes, such as chop suey or Szechuan prawns.
Indian – Dry and tomato-based dishes, such as madras or tandoori are going to be better for your cholesterol than creamier korma, masala or pasanda dishes.
Kebabs – Avoid doner kebabs when you could be enjoying a shish kebab.
Coffee – Ask for a smaller one, perhaps without cream, but cut out that large mug of whole milk coffee with sugar!
Snack time – Forget the high sugar, salty, fatty stuff, such as chocolate, doughnuts, pastries and cakes, and try these:
• Fruit
• Unsalted nuts (with dried fruit)
• Currant bun (slice)
• Fruit loaf (slice)
• Malt loaf (slice)

Foods that help to lower cholesterol levels:

Many foods help to lower your cholesterol levels and they are usually low in saturated fats. Make these plant based foods part of your regular healthy diet to lower cholesterol:

Oat bran, porridge and oat breakfast cereals Adzuki beans, butter beans, kidney beans, mung beans, lima beans, navy beans, pinto beans, split peas, etc. Baked beans Pearl barley Red or green lentils Vegetables rich in soluble fibre, such as  okra, aubergine, turnip, sweet potatoes  and mango Citrus fruits Soya products, milk, yogurt and mince chunks Tofu Almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, cashews, peanuts (always unsalted) Bread containing 50% oat flour or oat
bran Remark: You don’t have to worry about eating enough cholesterol, as your body will produce sufficient, whether you consume it or not.

Exercise

Join a gym or turn your life into one:

• Stop using lifts and escalators (walk or run upstairs)
• Park as far away from the shop entrance as you can
• Cycle or walk for local trips (exercise your arms as you walk)
• Do simple floor exercises at home When you’ve started healthy eating and regular exercise, you’ll feel far more able to tackle other contributing factors, such as smoking and drinking. Your whole body and mind will benefit from your new approach to a healthier way of living.

What now?

Book in for a cholesterol-test at a reputable hospital and find out how things stand. They’ll give you some crucial information on how to keep your good and bad cholesterols at optimum levels.

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