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Implications of cholesterol in your diet

It's a sobering experience to be told by your GP that you have elevated cholesterol levels in your bloodstream. Surprised, you immediately respond saying "Well I rarely eat red meat, watch my fat intake and eat quite a lot of healthy foods actually, so how has that happened?"

Cholesterol levels: The role of food

Food plays an obviously major role in our overall health. There are many foods that can raise total cholesterol levels, while there are others that have been known to help lower those unhealthy numbers. It also seems very unfair that some individuals can eat anything and still have a wonderful cholesterol profile! For those of us not so fortunate, it's of great importance to understand how diet can affect cholesterol levels, and to be blunt, all sensible adults of 20 plus, should have a cholesterol test done, as some cholesterol problems can be genetically inherited!

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance used throughout the body to make hormones and cell walls. The liver and other cells manufacture all the cholesterol the body needs from a variety of foods. Eating cholesterol-containing foods (i.e., of animal origin) or saturated fats and oils increases the body's total cholesterol. High levels of blood cholesterol can cause cholesterol plaque to build up in the arteries, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Cholesterol and fats travel through the bloodstream primarily via two lipoproteins or "vehicles" -- high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL).

Types of cholesterol

LDL is commonly referred to as the "bad" cholesterol because it is the form of cholesterol that can build up on the artery walls. HDL is referred to as the "good" cholesterol, because it tends to pick up LDL cholesterol from the blood stream artery walls and return it to the liver for 'recycling' or disposal.

The role of cholesterol

Chronically elevated blood cholesterol levels can lead to hardening of the arteries and atherosclerosis.
Dietary factors that affect how much cholesterol is absorbed include the amount of dietary cholesterol from animal products consumed, the concentration of plant sterols in the diet, and the type and amount of dietary fibre.

Cholesterol plays several important roles:

  • facilitates absorption and transport of fatty acids
  • maintains healthy nerve fibres
  • sustains healthy cells
  • builds cell membranes and sex hormones (oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone)
  • serves as a biochemical precursor for the synthesis of vitamin D at the skin surface
  • synthesises cortisol, which affects metabolism, glucose, protein and fat, and synthesises aldosterone, which regulates electrolyte and water balance in the adrenal glands
  • can aid formation of gall stones in the gallbladder

Understanding your lipid profile

Evaluate your own cholesterol levels:

Total cholesterol

  • Ideal: less than 160-200
  • Moderate risk: 200-240
  • High risk: More than 240


  • Ideal: Over 60
  • Moderate risk: 40-59
  • High risk: Less than 40


  • Ideal: Less than 100
  • Moderate risk: 100-159
  • High risk: More than 160


  • Ideal: Less than 150
  • Moderate risk: 150-199
  • High risk: More than 200


  • Ideal: 60-110
  • Moderate risk: 111-125
  • High risk: More than 126

Risk factors for elevated cholesterol

  • Poor health
  • Being overweight and having excess body fat
  • Metabolic conditions such as diabetes, pancreatitis(inflammation of the pancreas), renal disease or hypothyroidism(low thyroid activity)
  • Stress
  • High blood pressure
  • Diet of refined sugar
  • Smoking
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Heredity
  • Post-menopausal conditions in women

Lowering your cholesterol

  • Add more soluble fibre from beans, oats, oat bran, corn bran, fruits and vegetables. Fibre gets cholesterol out of your blood.
  • In moderation, eat polyunsaturated fatty acids like olive oil and seeds.
  • Have frequent meals, which decrease hunger and minimise fat storage. This also keeps blood sugar and insulin levels steady and help you feel fuller faster.
  • Eat vegetable proteins (tofu, beans, tempeh) as a variety alternative for lean meat, poultry and fish.
  • Eat soy products. Soy Lecithin has now been well approved for lowering cholesterol levels.
  • Don't gorge or persistently rush your meals.
  • Consume small amounts of essential fatty acids from nuts, fish, flaxseed.
  • If you're in the process of a weight loss plan…Do it slowly and consistently
  • Eat phytochemicals found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and grains.
  • Use spreads containing plant sterols.
  • Replace saturated fat with monounsaturated fat.
  • Try psyllium, a water-soluble fibre and bulk forming laxative.
  • Eat less trans-fatty acids or hydrogenated soybean oils - check packaged foods.
  • Eat pectin rich foods like apples and carrots, or citrus pectin like grapefruit, oranges, lemons and limes.

Raising your HDL levels

  • Exercise regularly, at least 2-3 times in a 7-day period, for 20-35 minutes each time, gently to begin with.
  • If you are overweight, lose it sensibly, and make a lifestyle promise to yourself of keeping it off.
  • Stop smoking as soon as possible, immediately if you can.
  • Eat smaller meals frequently (grazing).
  • Lower your triglycerides as per the advice below
  • Eat a low fat diet, but bear in mind too, that it's 'low fat', not 'no fat'!

NOTE: Remember: High levels of HDL cholesterol are a protection against heart disease. Low levels are a risk.

Lowering your Triglyceride levels

Get fit at a sensible pace and exercise regularly 2-3 times a week for 20-35 minutes, gently to begin with.

  • Increase fibre in your diet with whole grains, complex carbohydrates, five fruits and five vegetables every day as much as possible
  • Reduce saturated fat and cholesterol (from animal products).
  • Cut refined sugar and refined carbohydrates in your diet.
  • Include foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA. These can be found in flaxseed and oily fish. .
  • Decrease alcohol in your diet, if you are aware that it's excessive.
  • As in raising your HDLs, lose that excess weight and make a lifestyle promise to yourself to keep it off.
  • Eat small, frequent meals (grazing).
  • Stop smoking immediately if possible, but alternatively, as soon as your will and determination allows, but make it very soon.
  • Try olive oil, which lowers triglycerides and moderately improves glycaemic control (insulin reaction).

This article is courtesy of Alan Gordon

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