Cholesterol is a compound found in the blood and the nerves and at normal levels it is an important part of cell membranes. When too much cholesterol is found in the blood, however, it may cause fatty deposits on the inner walls of the arteries, and lead to the disease, atherosclerosis. For this reason monitoring cholesterol levels is considered an important feature of good cardiovascular healthcare and many doctors recommend regular tests.
Normal cholesterol levels
There are different types of cholesterol in the body: HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is known as ‘good’ cholesterol while LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is dubbed ‘bad.’ Triglycerides are fats that circulate in the blood and are made by the body. LDL is the culprit when it comes to the build up of fatty plaque in the arteries and when measuring levels of LDL in the blood less than 100md/dL is considered the optimal level. Triglyceride levels of 150 mg/dL or higher are thought to put people at risk of diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome. Higher levels of HDL are considered beneficial, with 60mg/dL being the optimal. Women with less than 50 mg/dL and men with less than 40 mg/dL are considered to be at risk from heart disease.
Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels
Regular testing helps to ensure that people are maintaining what is considered normal cholesterol levels, and acts as a prompt should levels begin to rise, as sometimes happens. Although statins may be prescribed to lower cholesterol, these do not suit everyone, and making lifestyle changes, including changes to diet and activity levels, and controlling weight can be very effective. The most successful diets are those where foods containing saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol are limited, while consumption of certain carbohydrates, sugars and alcohol is reduced.
What to avoid
A diet high in fat is never a good choice and too many fatty meats, pastries, full fat cheeses and processed snack foods will tend to push up levels of LDL, as will trans fats – formed when liquid oils have been ‘hardened’ and become solid fats, such as solid margarine as used in baked or fried foods. High consumption of these fats will tend to cause weight gain, which is another factor in increasing ‘bad’ cholesterol. A good tip is to cut right back on the fats used in cooking, and use spices and herbs to add flavor.
What to choose
Boosting your intake of vegetables and fruit will help to stabilize LDL and reduce the risk of damage to the arteries, as will increasing the consumption of pulses and oats. Likewise, oily fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines benefit from being rich in omega-3 fats and can improve HDL levels.
Eggs were thought to be linked with high cholesterol levels; however,recent research has established that this is not the case. Soluble fiber helps when adjusting the diet, and the oat bran in bread, oatmeal and cereals will improve digestion.
Being more active while adjusting to a less calorific diet is an even better way to improve heart health.