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
- 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
- Choose unsaturated and omega-3 fats instead of saturated and trans fats
- Foods rich in omega-3 fats:
- Fatty fish
- Canola oil and walnuts
- Ground flaxseed and chia seeds
- Other sources of unsaturated fatty acids:
- Non-hydrogenated margarines and olive oil
- Avocados and almonds
- Cut back on foods containing saturated fats:
- Highly processed food (e.g., deli meats, hot dogs)
- Fatty cuts of meat (e.g., beef, lamb)
- High-fat dairy products
- Coconut or palm oil
- Avoid foods containing trans fats:
- Hydrogenated margarines
- Pastries, cookies, and fried foods
- Chips and crackers
- Foods made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats
- Highly processed food: often high in salt, fat, or sugar
- Foods rich in omega-3 fats:
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Fruits and vegetables should make up half of your plate at every meal. Have them as snacks and prefer them raw.
- Choose whole grains and foods rich in soluble fibre.
They provide far more fibre and nutrients than their refined counterparts. Eat plenty of the following:
- Whole-grain bread
- Barley, oats, and quinoa
- Brown rice and spelt
Soluble fibre is particularly beneficial in improving cholesterol levels. The following foods are good sources of soluble fibre:
- Fruits and vegetables, unpeeled
- Oats and oat bran
- Psyllium and ground flaxseed
- Legumes (e.g., black beans, lentils)
- 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.
- Choose low-fat dairy products
- Avoid highly processed meats.
- Choose fish such as herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines and trout.
- Include phytosterols in your diet
Phytosterols are natural compounds found in plants that can help manage cholesterol levels. The following foods are good sources of phytosterols:
- Canola, soybean, and linseed oil
- Wheat germ, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and almonds
- Soy and cocoa
- Avocados, oranges, figs, apples, asparagus, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts
- Fortified foods: margarine, yogurt
- 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, sweetened soy/rice/almond beverages, fruit drinks, fruit juice - even if 100% pure, and ready-to-drink sweetened coffees and teas.
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.