How To Take Control of Your Cholesterol

How To Take Control of Your Cholesterol

You may have been told you have “high cholesterol”, or that you have “low good cholesterol”. Or maybe you’re just curious what the difference is.

The difference is cyclical - one affects the other. Good cholesterol helps lower bad cholesterol. It’s the ratio of good to bad in your total cholesterol that matters.

It’s important to keep the cholesterols on the right side of the balance - good should be high and bad should be low. Simple right?

But your cholesterol is impacted by several factors - some of which you have control over and some you don’t. If you do have high cholesterol, or you’re at a high risk of having it, a healthy lifestyle is the best way to take control of your levels.

What is Cholesterol

Graphic of artery clogged with cholesterol

Even though cholesterol has several dietary sources, most of your cholesterol is created by your liver. It’s essential to the metabolism of all of your cells, production of hormones, Vitamin D and bile for digesting food.

Cholesterol is carried through your blood to service your cells by attaching to fats called triglycerides and proteins. These compounds are called lipoproteins (lipo meaning fat + proteins). The density of proteins and fats to cholesterol is what differentiates the good from the bad.

The lower the density of proteins and fats means a higher amount of cholesterol. Excess cholesterol is not metabolised by your body effectively and ends up clogging your arteries.

There are are two main types of lipoproteins - one good and one bad.

Bad Cholesterol

LDL | Low-Density Lipoprotein

LDL has a high ratio of cholesterol and lower amounts of protein and fats. The LDL carries the cholesterol needed to your cells but whatever is left unused stays in your bloodstream.

Cholesterol has a waxy texture and the excess can build up in your blood vessels forming a plaque of fatty deposits. Your blood has a harder time navigating through arteries narrowed with the deposits, lowering your blood oxygen levels to your heart and brain. This is why high cholesterol can lead to heart attack or stroke.

Good Cholesterol  

HDL | High-Density Lipoprotein

HDL has a low ratio of cholesterol and a higher ratio of protein and fats. HDL protects your cholesterol levels by collecting the the excess blood cholesterol and carrying it back to your liver, where it’s properly disposed of.

Your liver converts the excess cholesterol into bile salts and are eventually eliminated through the digestion process. Without enough HDL to clear out the extra cholesterol, your LDL is able to build up in your arteries.

How to Read the Numbers

When it comes to blood cholesterol results, there are now several types of lipoproteins that are tested for, however these additional lipoproteins make up a small amount of bad cholesterol - roughly 25% combined. They contribute towards your bad ratio since they contain too much fat and cholesterol to act as good cholesterol.

On testing, these lipoproteins are called Non HDL Cholesterols and they are used to calculate the ratio of good and bad out of your total cholesterol.

  • Intermediate Density Lipoprotein = IDL
  • Very Low Density Lipoprotein = VLDL
  • Chylomicrons

It’s important to note, when “bad cholesterol” is discussed, it’s likely referring to LDL, since it makes up the majority of combined bad cholesterol levels.

According to Heart UK, here are the optimal results for a cholesterol test:

Code
Name
Representation
Optimal Result
TC
Total Cholesterol
The total amount of cholesterol in your blood - good or bad
5 mmol/L or less
Non HDL
Non HDL Cholesterol
This represents your total “bad” cholesterol.
Total cholesterol minus your HDL cholesterol (includes LDL, VLDL and IVL).
4 mmol/L or less
LDL-C
LDL Cholesterol
Total amount of LDL Cholesterol
3 mmol/L or less
HDL-C
HDL Cholesterol
Total amount of HDL Cholesterol
Men: over 1 mmol/L
Women: over 1.2 mmol/L
TC:HDL
TC:HDL Ratio
Your Total Cholesterol divided by your HDL Cholesterol
The lower the better - above 6 is considered high risk
TG
Triglyceride
Represent your body's ability to clear fat from the blood after a meal
Fasting: less than 1.7 mmol/L
Non Fasting: less than 2.3 mmol/L

* mmol/L stands for millimoles per litre


What Causes High Cholesterol?

There are a lot of factors at play when it comes to cholesterol. Some of the biggest aren’t something you can change. That’s why it’s important to be aware of what you can do to keep your levels in check.

Genetics

Genes and Family History

You may be at a higher risk if an immediate relative has heart problems or genetic conditions such as

  • Familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH) is a condition where a gene mutation causes high levels of LDL. People who have this gene mutation can have elevated bad cholesterol as young as 10.
  • If your father or brother suffered from early heart disease, at 55 or younger
  • If mother or sister suffered from early heart disease - at 45 or younger

Age and Gender

As you age your body has a harder time breaking down the cholesterol. Throughout the younger years, women typically have a higher level of good cholesterol, and men naturally have lower levels of HDL. Since estrogen plays a part in the creation of HDL compounds, the production will slow following menopause.  LDL levels will likely increase, and women 55 or older may get a higher cholesterol reading.

Lifestyle

Diet and Weight

A diet high in saturated fats and trans fats can lead to excess cholesterol in the blood. Your body is very likely producing enough cholesterol, so eating a ton more isn’t going anywhere except your arteries.

Your weight can also be an indicator of higher cholesterol. It makes sense - if you have extra fat cells that are not being metabolised, you may have extra cholesterol hanging onto to them.

Activity Levels

Leading a sedentary lifestyle lowers your metabolism - the basic rate at which your body functions. The lower our metabolism, the slower your liver will be at processing any excess cholesterol and triglycerides. Keeping your body moving will naturally boost your body’s ability to process waste.

How to Improve Cholesterol

Man using elliptical machine in gym

The goal here is to raise your good cholesterol and/or lower your bad cholesterol. As you increase your HDL, it will help clean out the LDL which makes for an effective bonus to the cycle.

Raise HDL

Get Active

Physical activity lowers your triglycerides and raises your HDL. Even an hour a week of physical activity can make a difference to your cholesterol levels. Maintaining a healthy weight and keeping your metabolism as high as possible will help you keep your ratio in check.

The benchmark for a healthy heart and metabolism is 150 minutes of moderate cardio exercise per week

  • Brisk walking or walking uphill
  • Jogging or running
  • Cycling and swimming
  • Aerobics or dance classes

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega 3 fatty acids raise HDL and reduce triglycerides, while lowering blood pressure.

  • Eat fatty fish like salmon, herring and tuna,
  • Eat nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds and ground flaxseeds
  • Get your Omega 3’s from a fish oil supplement

Alcohol in Moderation

A modest amount of alcohol per day has been shown to raise HDL. It’s important to note, exceeding these limits can have the adverse effect by increasing triglycerides and weight gain leading to higher LDL.  The high fibre Spanish red wines made used in this study, were shown to lower bad cholesterol by up to 9% and close to 12% in people who already had higher cholesterol levels.

  • Up to 1 drink per day for women and men over 65
  • Up to 2 drinks for men under 65

Lower LDL

Eat Healthy Fats

It’s important to choose healthy unsaturated fats so your body can break them down properly. Monounsaturated fats lower LDL and maintain your HDL which create a better ratio of total cholesterol.  

  • Choose monounsaturated fats from nuts, avocados, olive oil, sesame oil, tahini
  • Eat fatty fish like salmon and tuna
  • When eating meat, choose lean cuts of poultry or beef and remove skin and excess fat
  • Drink skim milk or nut milk, like almond or cashew

Limit Hard Fats

Trans fats lower HDL and saturated fats increase LDL. Because these fats stay hard, much like cholesterol, they build up in your body and are hard to remove. Limit saturated fats and trans fats, mainly through animal products.

  • Butter, lard or animal fats
  • Fatty meats like sausages and bacon
  • Full fat dairy like cheese, yogurt and milk
  • Coconut oil and creams
  • Trans fats found in packaged foods like cookies and cakes mixes
  • Hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated foods like margarine

Whey Protein

In supplement form, whey protein lowers LDL and total cholesterol - you’re getting all the benefits of the complete protein without the unhealthy fats. And because it leaves HDL unaffected, your ratio of good and bad cholesterol improves.

High Fibre

Soluble fiber helps to reduce the cholesterol into your blood. Eating a high fibre diet rich in fresh produce and healthy whole grains will help to reduce your LDL levels. Vegetables and fruit are full of fibre are low fat and have no cholesterol

Keep Cholesterol in Check

High cholesterol can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. Improving your ratio of total cholesterol will reduce your risk of heart disease and ensure your body is functioning effectively.   

It’s important to know where your cholesterol levels stand, since there are no signs and symptoms of high cholesterol. Check your risk factors and see your doctor for a cholesterol test if you have a family history of heart disease or high cholesterol, or if you eat a high fat diet or unhealthy diet and are generally inactive.

If you have high cholesterol, you can make healthy choices to lower your bad cholesterol and raise your good cholesterol.

  • Enjoy healthy fats, like olive oil and avocado
  • Avoid hard saturated and trans fats
  • Eat a high fibre diet and add whey protein into your meal plan
  • Do 150 minutes of moderate cardio per week
  • Have a glass of red wine
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