Six simple lifestyle measures to help lower cholesterol levels
Regular exercise and some healthy food swaps can make a big difference to long-term heart health, a nutritionist tells Liz Connor
RAISED cholesterol affects more than half of all adults in Britain and Northern Ireland – and many are completely unaware of it. While high cholesterol itself doesn't usually cause any symptoms, it's linked with an increased risk of a number of major diseases, including heart disease.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that's found naturally in the blood, and it isn't always bad news. In fact, we need cholesterol for our bodies to function healthily – but there are different types, and it only becomes a problem when levels of LDL cholesterol are too high.
LDL (low density lipoprotein) is what's known as 'bad' cholesterol. If there's too much LDL cholesterol in the body, it can slowly build up and clog in the arteries, making it difficult for blood to flow.
HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol, meanwhile, is the 'good' type. This helps remove excess cholesterol from the bloodstream and return it to the liver, where it's broken down and passed out of the body.
Anyone can have high cholesterol, even if you're young and slim (sometimes it's genetic), and it can be diagnosed by your GP with a simple blood test.
If you're diagnosed with high cholesterol, your GP may prescribe medication such as statins, but making simple lifestyle changes can help too.
Nutritionist Sarah Franciosi explains: "By taking simple steps towards a healthier diet and lifestyle, you can help to lower your cholesterol. For example, one of the most common causes of high cholesterol in people in the UK is eating too much saturated fat, so it's a good idea to try and cut that out for better health."
With barbecues and boozy pub garden afternoons on the horizon, here, Franciosi offers her top six top tips for naturally lowering your cholesterol this summer...
1. Stay active:
Throwing yourself into a sweaty gym session after a busy day at the office isn't just a great tonic for stress, studies have also found that an active lifestyle can help lower cholesterol levels. Franciosi advises: "Regular exercise can help to improve your 'good' HDL cholesterol level. HDL cholesterol helps to remove excess cholesterol from the bloodstream and returns it to the liver where it is broken down and passed out of the body."
She says you should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, five times a week or more. "Remember, if you have a particular health concern, it is a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional before starting a new exercise regime," she adds.
2. Switch to healthier cooking methods:
Frying foods is quick and easy but it can destroy some of the vitamins in veggies – and if you chuck a knob of butter into the pan, this can add to your daily saturated fat count.
Franciosci suggests reassessing your cooking methods and switching to methods that don't require lots of butter, lard or oil. "Grilling, steaming, boiling and baking use less fat than frying," she says. "So you can also cook up a storm with some of your favourite foods while cutting back on saturated fats."
3. Eat more fruit and veg:
There's no two ways about it – getting a good helping of fruit and veg in your diet is one of the easiest ways to improve your overall health. Not only are our colourful friends a good source of vitamins and minerals, including folate, vitamin C and potassium, but many fruit and vegetables are also packed with dietary fibre, which can help to keep your gut healthy.
"Aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day," says Franciosci. "This will provide you with fibre and a range of vitamins, while also keeping your plate varied and colourful. Some fruit and veg contain soluble fibre which can help lower cholesterol, but oats, beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas contain it too, so you can keep it interesting by mixing up your plate with lots of different foods," she adds.
4. Drink in moderation:
Studies suggest that binge-drinking frequently (where you regularly drink over the recommended maximum intake of units) can put you at higher risk of conditions such as high blood pressure and and high cholesterol.
"The recommended daily alcohol consumption is no more than two to three units a day for women, and three to four units a day for men," says Franciosci. If you don't want to miss out on Friday night beers at the pub, she suggests putting a limit on your booze intake and switching to alcohol-free tipples later in the evening. "Remember, one unit of alcohol equates to one small glass of wine, half a pint of normal strength lager, cider or beer, or one pub measure of spirits."
5. Swap out saturated fats:
Franciosci says saturated fat is found in high-fat dairy foods such as cream, whole milk, hard cheese, butter, as well as in fatty cuts of meat and in cakes, biscuits and pastries.
"Unsaturated fat is better for your heart health and is found in a wide range of tasty and versatile foods," she says. "These include oily fish – like salmon, mackerel and herring – nuts, seeds and vegetable oils, and spreads made from rapeseed and olive oil. This means you can keep your heart happy while still having a variety of foods to choose from."
6. Try low-cholesterol alternatives:
Going on a low-cholesterol diet doesn't mean you have to miss out on some of life's simplest pleasures – like melted butter on a round of toast, or a helping of grated cheese on a steaming bowl of spaghetti Bolognese. There are now plenty of low-cholesterol alternatives to popular foods, such as buttery spreads, cheese and yogurts.
"Benecol has a range of foods that contain a ingredient called plant stanol ester, that's been found to lower cholesterol and can help to keep a heart happy diet on track," says Franciosci. "They're found naturally in some edible plants, but only in tiny amounts. When there are plenty of them though, they work together to reduce 'bad' LDL-cholesterol."
If you're concerned about your cholesterol levels, speak to your GP, and anyone aged 40-74 can get their cholesterol measured as part of their routine NHS health checks.
In the meantime, it's a good idea to adopt healthy habits. "Not only can making the above changes be beneficial for lowering cholesterol, but they'll also contribute to better overall health," says Franciosci.