What is hypercholesterolemia?
Hypercholesterolemia, aka high cholesterol is the presence of high levels of cholesterol (or lipids, which are essentially fats, or molecules in the blood that transport fats) in the blood. In a nutshell, we have good fats (high density lipoproteins) and bad fats (low density lipoproteins), and we want to minimise the amount of bad fat that we have (1). Causes for high cholesterol could be due to genetics (i.e. familial hypercholesterolemia), down to the presence of another disease, such as underactive thyroid or diabetes, or as a consequence of the lifestyle that we are leading (1; 2). Today we’ll look at the latter, as it gives us something we can focus on to change, and could well have a positive impact for someone suffering from familial hypercholesterolemia too!
What are the negative effects of high cholesterol?
So, we can all probably guess that having high cholesterol or a lot of “bad fats” isn’t a good thing right? But what does this actually mean for us? Having high cholesterol can increase our risk of cardiovascular disease, for example having a heart attack or stroke, and this is due to the fatty deposits that build up in our arteries if we have too many bad fats in our diet. The deposits that build up in our arteries (plaques) from bad fats can reduce the blood flow and may cause complications such as chest pain, heart palpitations or breathlessness. If you have any of these symptoms, you should go and visit your GP immediately (3).
How can we reduce our cholesterol?
Lowering our cholesterol can actually be quite straightforward, and doesn't necessarily have to involve taking medication (of course always speak to your GP about this first!). Two key areas we can look at are our diet and also our exercise levels (2). The exercise is fairly simple, essentially, the more we are doing that raises our heart rate, the better the balance of our cholesterol profile will be and the greater our chance of being a healthy weight.
In regards to our diet, what we actually eat can affect our cholesterol profile due to the build up of different types of fat in our blood, so let's have a look a certain foods to avoid, and what we should be eating to improve our cholesterol. We want to avoid those foods containing saturated fats and Trans fats, whilst eating more of the foods containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Have a look at the table below to get an idea of where we might find these! (2). When thinking about the foods that we are eating, we should try to limit those in red, whilst eating a healthy amount of those in green. Which do you think are more prevalent in your diet?
Cholesterol Myths Debunked!
1. What about foods that are high in cholesterol, such as eggs, seafood, liver and kidney? You may have heard that we need to avoid foods that are naturally high in cholesterol, however as these above foods are actually low in saturated fat, most of us actually don’t need to limit these. If in any doubt, speak to your health care professional (4).
2. I’m young, keep active and I’m slim, so surely this means that my cholesterol must be healthy? Cholesterol can partially be influenced by your genetics, so we can’t guess a person’s cholesterol levels. Family history of raised cholesterol or heart disease, that apple shape for weight distribution (storing it around our middle) and a person’s lifestyle may all be indicators that someone’s cholesterol is raised (5).
3. I’ve switched to using coconut oil as I’ve heard it’s good for heart health? Wrong. Coconut oil is a saturated fat and will increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol. Any benefit that may be reported on HDL (good) cholesterol with use is likely to be outweighed by the increase in LDL (5).
1) https://www.bhf.org.uk/heart-health/risk-factors/high-cholesterol - accessed 06/02/2018
2) https://www.bupa.co.uk/health-information/directory/h/high-cholesterol - accessed 06/02/2018
3) https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronary-heart-disease/symptoms/ - accessed 06/02/2018
4) https://heartuk.org.uk/cholesterol-and-diet/low-cholesterol-diets-and-foods - accessed 13/02/2018
5) https://heartuk.org.uk/healthcare-professionals/learning-resources/diet-myths - accessed 13/02/2018