According to the World Health Organisation, around 39% of adults aged 25 and over had raised cholesterol levels in 2008. Six years later, we now know for certain that cardiovascular disease is Ireland's biggest killer for both men and women, accounting for 33% of all deaths. The most common risk factors of heart disease include family history, gender, stress, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, smoking, obesity and high blood pressure levels. Many risk factors are silent and can easily go unnoticed. One such "silent" risk factor to your heart health is cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the body, which is essential for maintaining normal cell membrane and hormone production in the body. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is often known as "bad" cholesterol. Its role is to transport cholesterol around your body to the cells that need it. However, any excess cholesterol that is produced, builds up on the walls of the arteries and can lead to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and in turn, raise the risk of heart attack or stroke. High density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is also known as "good" or "healthy" cholesterol. This is because it "mops up" any excess cholesterol that your body does not use and transports it away from your arteries and your heart. It then brings it back to the liver to be recycled or removed from the body as waste. Therefore, to stop your cholesterol levels getting too high, you must increase your levels of HDL and decrease your levels of LDL.
In order to keep your cholesterol levels in check, it is important to have regular blood tests taken by your doctor. Healthy levels are estimated as:Total cholesterol - below 5 mmol/L, LDL levels - below 3 mmol/L, HDL levels - greater than 1 mmol/L. If your levels are bordering on unhealthy, you may find that making some simple lifestyle changes can result in a decrease in cholesterol levels without the use of any medication. What exactly are these changes?
In order to reduce the risk of heart disease, it is important to limit the amount of saturated fat in the diet as this can raise cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are found in products such as cream, butter, cheese, fatty cuts of meats and processed meat products. Processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, fried and deep fried snack foods should also also be avoided as they are particularly high in saturated fat. Foods such as eggs, shellfish, liver and dairy products all contain cholesterol. If eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet, they should not cause a substantial rise in cholesterol levels.
It is important to remember however, that not all fats are bad for us. Some fats are essential and can actually help to effectively raise our HDL levels. Such fats include the essential fatty acid, Omega 3. Foods rich in Omega 3 include oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines. It is recommended that we eat 2 to 3 portions of oily fish a week. If you struggle to fit this amount of oily fish into your diet, taking a quality fish oil supplement may be a better option. A supplement which contains EPA and DHA levels over 250mg can help to increase your Omega 3 intake substantially. Other foods which are rich in "good fats" include almonds, brazil nuts, walnuts, flaxseed, linseed, chia seed, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, rapeseed oil, olive oil and coconut oil.
If possible, try to steam, bake or boil your foods instead of frying. Replace butter with spreads made from rapeseed, sunflower or olive oil. Avoid the use of "low fat" spreads as these contain trans- or hydrogenated fats which can raise cholesterol levels. Fibre is very important for the removal of excess cholesterol from the bowels. Foods which are high in dietary fibre include vegetables and wholegrains.
Regular exercise has also been found to increase your "good" cholesterol levels and reduce the level of "bad" cholesterol. Aim to exercise a couple of days a week to a point where you increase your heart rate and break a sweat. Many potential cardiovascular issues can be prevented or slowed down by making some simple, regular changes to your lifestyle. If you require more information about foods or supplements for lowering cholesterol, do not hesitate to contact the Evergreen team.