High levels of the wrong kinds of cholesterol in the blood may increase the risk of developing heart disease. A healthy diet can help to lower your risk of high cholesterol.

Cholesterol has many important functions in the body, including:

  • Producing hormones
  • Being part of the cell walls in the body
  • Producing bile acid.

Even though cholesterol is essential for the body, having high levels of the wrong type of cholesterol in the blood increases heart disease risk.

Factors which may increase your risk of developing high blood cholesterol levels

What is the difference between LDL and HDL cholesterol and what does it mean for me?

Cholesterol is a type of fat and (like all fats) is not soluble in water. Lipoproteins help transport cholesterol in the bloodstream (as blood is water-based).

The two main types of lipoproteins are:

Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL)

  • the ‘bad’ cholesterol
  • contributes to blocked arteries and risk of heart disease
  • current recommendations are to keep LDL cholesterol levels to <2.0mmol/L if at risk of heart disease

High Density Lipoprotein (HDL)

  • the ‘good’ cholesterol
  • helps protect arteries from a build up of fatty deposits and helps decrease heart disease risk
  • HDL cholesterol levels are recommended to be >1.0mmol/L

The total level of cholesterol in the blood is a combination of HDL (good) cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol. When having your cholesterol tested, ask your doctor to check both your HDL and LDL cholesterol. A low level of HDL cholesterol and a high level of LDL cholesterol in the blood will place you at risk of heart disease.

Healthy eating to lower cholesterol

People with a high level of LDL cholesterol in the blood may be able to reduce their cholesterol levels by:

  • Eating foods that are low in saturated fat
  • Limiting intake of foods that have a high saturated fat content (such as many biscuits, cakes and fatty take-away foods)
  • Replacing saturated fats in the diet with mono- or poly-unsaturated fats (such as using olive oil instead of butter)
  • Eating some foods with poly-unsaturated and mono-unsaturated fat (such as nuts, avocados and oily fish)
  • Including more fibre-rich foods in your diet such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrain bread and cereals
  • Limiting excessive intake of foods rich in cholesterol.

It was once thought that eating too many cholesterol-containing foods (such as eggs) was the major dietary cause of high blood cholesterol level. But we now know that eating large amounts of foods containing saturated fats is a bigger problem and has a much greater influence on blood cholesterol levels.

Keeping active is also an important part of keeping cholesterol levels healthy. Try to be physically active for 30-60 minutes each day.

A note on triglycerides

Triglycerides are a measure of the amount of fat circulating in the blood. They will often be measured along with your blood cholesterol levels. The dietary recommendations to help lower your blood cholesterol will also help lower your triglyceride levels.

Some other changes that may help to lower triglyceride levels include:

  • Drinking less alcohol
  • Consuming less sugar-containing food and drinks.

What are plant sterols?

Plant sterols have been shown to decrease LDL cholesterol levels as they compete with cholesterol for absorption in the gut. Plant sterols naturally occur in seeds, nuts, legumes and some breads and cereals. Some supermarket foods (such as certain margarines, milks and yoghurts) are fortified with plant sterols. It is important to consume the recommended quantities of these products to achieve a decrease in cholesterol, so always remember to check the food labels.

An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) can provide expert, tailored dietary advice for people with high blood cholesterol levels or a family history of high cholesterol levels.