Cholesterol is naturally present in the body and is responsible for a range of life-sustaining functions. While 80% of this fat-like substance is produced in the liver, about 20% of the cholesterol in our blood comes from the foods we eat. When there is too much cholesterol in the blood, it builds up and forms plaque, eventually causing the arteries to narrow or become blocked. This can lead to cardiovascular disease and blood clots.
Cholesterol is carried through the bloodstream by lipoproteins, of which there are two types: LDL and HDL. LDL carries cholesterol from the liver to other parts of the body. It is commonly known as "bad" cholesterol and contributes to plaque formation. HDL carries cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver. It is commonly referred to as "good" cholesterol.
A blood test is the only way to detect high cholesterol.
Preventing heart disease
It is common knowledge that high cholesterol increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Cholesterol however, is not the only risk factor. Age, family history, being male, diabetes, high blood pressure, inactivity, obesity, smoking, and reduced kidney function are other factors. While some risk factors for cardiovascular disease cannot be controlled, you can reduce your risk. Here is how:
- Quit smoking
This is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
- Exercise regularly
Regular exercise promotes health and prevents heart disease. According to current guidelines, adults should engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 2.5 hours a week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more (30 minutes a day). Muscle-strengthening exercises are also recommended at least twice a week.
- Manage stress and get enough sleep
It has been proven that stress is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Seek professional help if needed. It is also known that getting 6 to 8 hours of sleep per night is beneficial. Seek professional help if needed.
- Limit alcohol consumption
The recommended limit is 1 to 2 drinks per day.
- Eat healthy and have a healthy weight
In addition to helping lower your cholesterol, healthy eating habits can significantly decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Nutritional recommendations for heart health
- Eat a range of whole foods that have been minimally processed.
Avoid processed foods since they are often high or too high in salt, fat or sugar.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Fruits and vegetable should make up half of your plate at every meal. Have them as snacks and prefer them raw.
- Choose whole grains.
They provide far more fibre and nutrients than their refined counterparts.
- Vary your source of protein.
Choose more vegetarian options such as beans, lentils, tofu and nuts. Opt for lean meats and remove skin from poultry. Avoid processed meats. Choose fish such as herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines and trout.
- Choose low fat dairy products or alternatives with no added sugar.
Opt for 1% or skim milk and low-fat cheeses.
- Plan healthy snacks.
Examples of healthy snacks include fresh fruit or vegetables with a piece of cheese or hummus.
- Avoid sugary drinks.
This includes soft drinks, sports drinks, sweetened milk, soy/rice/sweet almond milk, fruit drinks, fruit juice - even if 100% pure, and ready-to-drink sweetened coffees and teas.
- Reduce your fat intake and eat healthy fats.
- Opt for unsaturated fats especially those rich in omega 3 such as fatty fish, canola oil, walnuts, ground flaxseed and legumes, and other unsaturated fats, including olive oil, non-hydrogenated margarine and avocados and almonds.
- Reduce your intake of saturated fats. These are mainly found in processed foods such as deli meats and hot-dogs.
- Avoid foods that contain trans fats such as hydrogenated margarine, pastries, cookies and deep fried foods.
Based on your risk factors and your "bad" cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe cholesterol-lowering medication. For treatment to be effective, it is important that medication be taken regularly, even if you do not feel its beneficial effects. These medications are prescribed to complement healthy lifestyle habits, but do not replace them.
For more information or support:
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada