Understanding cholesterol Posted by Justine Clarabut on 25 September, 2019

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is made in the liver and found in certain foods derived from animals . Cholesterol is essential in our bodies and is found in every cell. It is particularly important for our brain, nerves and skin. However, having too much can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Having a high cholesterol level can cause fatty deposits to build up in our arteries. In time, these deposits grow clogging up the arteries causing a restriction in blood flow. This can lead to serious health problems.

What causes high cholesterol?

There are certain factors that may increase your chances of having an increased cholesterol level, such as family history, obesity, high blood pressure or if you are a smoker. However, an unhealthy lifestyle is the main cause. For example, eating food that is high in fat, being overweight, not exercising, smoking, drinking alcohol or worse still, a combination of these!

What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?

High cholesterol doesn’t usually present any symptoms until it is too late. For example an emergency situation such as heart attack or stroke. No matter what your age or how healthy you feel, it is so important to have regular check ups for cholesterol. It is recommended that adults over 20 should be tested every 5 years.

How can I test my cholesterol levels?

A blood test is the only way to check your cholesterol. This can be done via a non-fasting simple finger prick test which gives an immediate indication whether there is cause for concern. You can have a blood test at your GP where a small sample of blood will be taken and sent off for testing. this is usually a fasting test which means you cannot eat for about 10 hours before the test. This test will give you a more complex reading of the different types of cholesterol in your body and triglycerides.

What should my cholesterol levels be?

The NHS guide is as follows:

  • Total Cholesterol: 5 or below
  • LDL (bad cholesterol) 3 or below
  • HDL (good cholesterol) 1 or above
  • Non-HDL (bad cholesterol) 4 or below
  • Triglycerides 2.3 or below

What is total cholesterol?

Cholesterol is made up of different components. Total cholesterol is the total amount of cholesterol in your blood which is made up of the following:

  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is often referred to as bad cholesterol. Increased levels of LDL raises the risk of heart disease or stroke.
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is ‘good’ and can lower your risk for heart disease and stroke. This is because it absorbs cholesterol and sends it back to the liver where it is flushed from the body.
  • VLDL (very low-density lipoprotein) This is known as triglyceride and is a fatty substance similar to LDL. It enters the body after a meal and is used or stored for energy. A raised level of triglycerides can add to a higher risk of heart disease, as well as other serious health problems.

What part does diet play in cholesterol levels?

There are 2 main types of fat in food: saturated and un-saturated. Eating a healthy balanced diet that is low in saturated fat is the best way to prevent an increase in cholesterol levels. Foods that are high in saturated fat include cakes, pies, pastries, sausages, cream, cheese and so on. There are other foods that naturally contain cholesterol such as prawns, shellfish, eggs (the yolk), offal such as liver and kidney. It is ok to eat these foods in moderation but if you have a high cholesterol level, it is best to avoid them.

Research shows that plant based fats are better than animal fats. There is no cholesterol in plant food such as grains, nuts, beans, lentils, peas, vegetables and fruit. Cholesterol is only found in foods that come from animals. However, foods such as coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernels and cocoa butter are very high in saturated fat.

Lead a healthy life to avoid serious disease and illnesses

It is common sense that living healthily will lower the risk of serious health problems. Exercise and a balanced diet are key to maintaining a healthy weight and in most cases will help to lower cholesterol. However, remember you don’t have to be overweight to have cholesterol levels that are too high, it can happen to slim people too. This is because people who don’t easily gain weight may be unaware of how much saturated fat they consume.

Wellbeing People carry out health screening in workplaces and organisations of all sizes. A simple 5 minute test could be the turning point in your life to make positive changes to your lifestyle and move on to lead a healthier happier life.

October is National Cholesterol Awareness Month

To find out more about how you can raise awareness around cholesterol and help fund life saving research. Click here