Cholesterol is a type of fat in the blood, and it plays a pivotal role when it comes to our health. However, if not monitored effectively, cholesterol has the ability to clog our arteries and raise our risk of heart disease.
If you're wondering how to lower your cholesterol, read on. In this article, we'll run through some simple dietary and lifestyle changes that can be an easy way to reduce your cholesterol levels and lower your risk. It can be as simple as avoiding trans fats and smoking, or increasing your consumption of soluble fibre and heart-healthy unsaturated fats. You might also want to check out our article on how to eat healthily for more tips that could help.
If you're interested in the science behind this advice, jump to 'what is cholesterol and why can it have a negative effect?' at the bottom of the article. Always speak with your medical professional if you are concerned about cholesterol, and want to get your levels checked.
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1. Avoid artificial trans-fats
Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat that has been modified through a process called hydrogenation. The purpose of hydrogenation is to make vegetable oils more stable and turn them into solid and semi-solid fats. Foods such as margarine and shortening are made of trans-fats, which is why you will often find them in baked goods such as cookies, muffins, cakes and pastries.
The body handles trans-fats very badly, in comparison with other fats. They have been shown to increase total cholesterol and LDL and decrease the beneficial HDL cholesterol by over 20 per cent, which is why you should avoid or limit consumption to lower your cholesterol.
2. Consume unsaturated fats
Studies show that a diet high in unsaturated fats reduces harmful LDL and maintains higher levels of healthy HDL cholesterol. You should therefore aim to increase your daily consumption of unsaturated fats to keep your heart healthy.
Unsaturated fats, particularly monounsaturated fats, can also protect against the oxidation of lipoproteins, a process which can further promote clogged-up arteries.
There are two main types of unsaturated fat; monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fat sources include:
- Nuts and seeds such as almonds, cashews and hazelnuts
- Olive oil
Polyunsaturated fat sources include:
- Oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, herring, salmon and sardines
- Hemp seeds, sunflower seeds and flax seeds
It is recommended that your unsaturated fat intake should make up approximately 20-30 per cent of your total daily calorie intake (5-10 per cent coming from polyunsaturated fat sources and 15-20 per cent from monounsaturated fats). This works out at approximately 30-60g of unsaturated fat per day.
3. Banish the cigarettes
Smoking has been shown to alter the way that the body handles cholesterol. This occurs as a result of tobacco tar which can cause immune cells in smokers to stop returning cholesterol from blood vessel walls to the liver. As a result, there is an increased risk of high cholesterol in smokers.
In fact, a large review of 34 cohort studies examined the relationship between smoking and cholesterol across thousands of people. The findings reported that smoking increases the harmful LDL cholesterol and can decrease the beneficial HDL cholesterol subtype. Luckily, those that quit smoking can reverse these effects and lower their cholesterol levels.
4. Eat more soluble fibre
Soluble fibre is a type of fibre that we as humans cannot digest; it exists as a food source for the beneficial bacteria that live in our gut (also known as the microbiome). These beneficial bacteria play a number of roles when it comes to supporting our health, including reducing harmful lipoproteins, LDL and VLDL, which deposit cholesterol in the body.
Two different types of soluble fibre, pectin and psyllium have been studied for their impact on LDL levels. It was found that pectin was able to reduce LDL levels by up to 4 per cent and the soluble fibre from psyllium reduced LDL cholesterol by 6 per cent.
Good sources of soluble fibre include:
- Lentils and beans
- Carrots and peas
- Flax seeds
- Whole grains such as brown rice, buckwheat, millet and oats
What is cholesterol and why can it be bad for you?
Cholesterol is a type of fat in the blood. Made in the liver, cholesterol plays an important role in how your body works, from being needed to manufacture certain hormones (such as vitamin D) to keeping the walls of your body’s cells flexible and in good condition. Having a high level of lipids in your blood (hyperlipidaemia) can lead to serious health concerns such as heart attack and stroke.
Cholesterol is carried around the body with molecules called lipoproteins, which carry cholesterol and fat around the blood. There are a few kinds of lipoproteins, which have different effects on our health.
High density lipoprotein (HDL)
HDL is the good type of cholesterol because it helps to prevent disease (it contains lots of protein and very little cholesterol). HDL’s job is to carry cholesterol away from the body’s cells and back to the liver, to be broken down and removed from the body.
Low density lipoprotein (LDL)
LDL contains lots of cholesterol and is often called bad cholesterol, since too much of it in the blood can be linked to health problems. LDL’s job is to transport cholesterol to the body’s cells where it is needed. To take it one step further, new research goes even further to suggest that LDL isn’t necessarily all bad because there are different subtypes of LDL cholesterol:
- Small, dense LDL (sd-LDL) is the small type of low-density lipoprotein that can penetrate the arterial walls, which makes these subtypes a key risk factor for heart disease.
- Large buoyant LDL (lb-LDL) are the big, fluffy LDL particles which are considered benign. Research from the Journal of the American Medical Association determined that it is the small, dense LDL particles which are three times more likely to cause heart disease than large buoyant LDL particles.
Very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL)
VLDL differs to LDL due to the fact that they have different percentages of cholesterol, protein and triglycerides that make up each lipoprotein. VLDL contains more triglycerides (another type of blood fat, approximately 70 per cent), whereas LDL contains more cholesterol. Both VLDL and LDL are considered types of ‘bad’ cholesterol, since high levels of VLDL can also be linked with cardiovascular disease risk.
In order to reduce our cholesterol, we therefore need more large LDL particles and as little small, dense LDL and VLDL particles as possible, whilst maintaining high levels of protective HDL (good cholesterol).
Lauren Windas is a registered nutritionist & naturopath, a co-founder of ARDERE, a private nutrition clinic, and a Master Practitioner in Eating Disorders & Obesity. She works individually with clients in her private clinic to assess their nutrition and long-term health goals, with a particular focus on helping those with chronic illnesses.