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Medical opinion is unanimous: excessive levels of cholesterol in your diet are bad for you. We all need some cholesterol in our diets – our bodies would suffer without it – but traditional Western diets are often high in cholesterol that can lead to serious health conditions.
Cholesterol combines in your blood with proteins to form ‘lipoproteins’. There are two kinds: good and bad.
High-density lipoprotein (‘HDL’) is known as ‘good cholesterol’ because it carries cholesterol to your liver, where it can be broken down or passed out of your body in your poo. The more HDL you have, the better.
Low-density lipoprotein (‘LDL’), or ‘bad cholesterol’, carries cholesterol to the cells that need it, but if there’s too much it can clog your arteries. Clogged arteries are associated with angina, heart attacks, strokes and all sorts of other coronary heart disease, so it’s important to keep LDL levels down. Medical procedures like an angioplasty or a heart bypass can undo some of the damage if it’s too late and you’re already suffering with angina.
A simple test is all you need to find out your cholesterol level. If it’s higher than it should be and you’re not sure how to bring it down, a dietary consultation can help you identify where you need to make changes. In the meantime, here are a few basic things to consider:
1. Reduce your saturated fat intake
Saturated fat and bad cholesterol are closely linked. Spooning away fat from the top of roasts, casseroles and curries can cut your fat intake instantly without impacting on taste.
It’s in pastry and anything with butter, so enjoy these in moderation. Remember your body needs some ‘bad cholesterol’ to serve the cells that need it, so you shouldn’t have to cut things out entirely.
You often don’t realise you’re consuming saturated fat because it’s hidden in all sorts of things, like takeaway coffees. These use whole milk, and it’s easy to switch to a lower-fat (‘skinny’) version by asking for skimmed milk.
2. Refrain from frying
When you fry, the food sits in cooking oil and this forces the oils and fats into the food – which you then eat. Grilling on a rack, by comparison, allows the fat in your meats to drain away. You could also try steaming or poaching your foods – this is especially good for preserving the delicate flavour and texture of things like fish.
3. Eat more fruit and veg
There is strong evidence that eating plenty of fruit and veg is linked to reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, because they contain high levels of soluble fibre that reduces cholesterol. Fibrous foods also make you feel fuller for longer (so you’re not tempted to snack) and are naturally low in saturated fat.
4. Integrate oily fish
While you want to reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet, it’s a good idea to replace some of this with modest amounts of unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats help to maintain the HDL good cholesterol levels while reducing the LDL bad cholesterol levels. Oily fish like mackerel, salmon and fresh tuna contains lots of ‘essential fatty acids’ (a type of unsaturated fat), including one that’s commonly called Omega-3. A healthy diet should include two portions of fish a week, including one that’s oily.
If you’re not a fan of fish, you can get unsaturated fats from other foods instead: avocado, nuts, and olive, rapeseed andnut oils.
5. Switch to a fortified spread
We’ve already mentioned how cutting down on butter can help reduce your cholesterol, but did you know there are alternative spreads that actually help to actively reduce your cholesterol?
Spreads like Benecol and Flora ProActiv are fortified with plant sterols and stanols that block cholesterol absorption in your gut. These exist naturally in a wide range of foods, but a fortified spread contains extra-high levels to help you achieve the optimum intake.
6. Learn about flavonoids
Some foods contain things that can help to combat cholesterol. Whole grains, berries and green tea in particular contain flavonoids that have been found to lower LDL cholesterol. Flavonoids can also be found in dark chocolate and red wine. Consume these treats in moderation and they can actually be good for you.
7. Stay calm
Stress and anxiety doesn’t have a direct impact on our cholesterol levels. Many of us, however, comfort eat to make us feel happier – and this usually involves ‘bad foods’ like pizza, crisps, chocolate and chips that can all raise your cholesterol.
8. Quit smoking
This should go without saying. Smoking damages your arteries and blood vessels, which can make them more prone to clogging by excess cholesterol. There are lots of benefits to stopping smoking. If you’re wondering what happens to your body when you quit, we’ve broken it down for you. Because we know this is easier said than done we have 10 practical tips to help you kick the habit.
9. Get moving!
Research indicates that doing both cardio exercise and weights-based training will help reduce your risk of heart disease, and a combination of the two is best1. Exercise won’t reduce your levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol – that’s down to your diet – but it can increase the levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol in your bloodstream.
10. Choose thoughtfully from the takeaway menu
Having a takeaway as a treat isn’t something that you need to give up, but you can still make healthier choices and enjoy them as part of a healthy diet. Simple changes that can help you reduce your bad saturated fat intake include avoiding kormas and Thai curries made with coconut milk (go for something tomato-based, like a madras or bhuna), and swapping pepperoni for ham on your pizza.
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