Practical dietary solutions to help lower blood cholesterol
Your GP has just carried out a blood test and has told you that your cholesterol is high. Your GP is advising that you start on medication straight away but you would like to make some dietary changes first, so what’s the best course of action? Aside from consulting with a dietitian for individualised advice, read on to get some practical advice on changes that can be made to help lower your cholesterol.
What is cholesterol?
Before we get started, let’s discuss what cholesterol actually is. It is a type of fat that is vital in small amounts and is used by all our cells. It also helps to make some hormones and vitamin D, in addition to being a component of bile (a fluid that helps us digest our food).
Our liver is a major producer of cholesterol but some food such as eggs, organ meats and seafood do contain small amounts of cholesterol. Historically, the link between food and cholesterol wasn’t very well understood, and it was believed that it was cholesterol itself found in food that would lead to the increase in blood cholesterol.
As science has advanced, it is now known that this is no longer the case. It is actually foods high in saturated fat (more detail on this to follow) that subsequently have the largest effect on cholesterol readings.
Why do you need to lower your cholesterol?
Why is it important that you try to lower your cholesterol if it has come back high? Simply put, an abundance of cholesterol in your blood can lead to the build-up of fatty material within the walls of your arteries. This can subsequently lead to a heart attack or a stroke – this is because the build-up of fatty material eventually cuts off the blood supply to your brain and heart, in essence, starving them of oxygen.
When you get your blood results back, the following will be seen:
- HDL cholesterol i.e the ‘good’ cholesterol. It exerts a protective effect over the heart and so you want the figure to be high.
- Non-HDL cholesterol – this is the type that consists of the ‘bad’ cholesterols: LDL, VLDL and lipoprotein (a). You want to aim for this value to be lower than 4mmol/L.
- The total of the above is known as total cholesterol and you want the value to be below 5mmol/L.
Studies have shown that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats (known as mono or poly-unsaturated fats, which are healthier fats and ideally want to increase in the diet) can lower the levels of LDL cholesterol in our bloodstream.
Top tips to lower cholesterol
1. Limit saturated fats
There are different types of fat which come from our diet – some are good for us, and others, not so much. The type of fat we want to limit in our diet is called saturated fat; this is because having too much leads to an increase in blood cholesterol.
The following foods often have high amounts of saturated fat in them and so you may wish to limit them. These are:
- fatty pieces of red meat
- processed meat like sausages/bacon/burgers
- coconut and palm oils
- full-fat dairy –although recent studies suggest that the fat in full-fat milk may not function in the same way as other saturated fats due to the way it is packaged within the milk
- fried foods
- hard cheeses
- butter, lard, ghee and suet
On the other hand, studies have shown that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats (known as mono or poly-unsaturated fats, which are healthier fats and ideally want to increase in the diet) can lower the levels of LDL cholesterol in our bloodstream. The following foods are a good source of healthy fats:
- seeds and nuts
- oily fish such as herring, pilchards, sardines, trout, fresh tuna, mackerel, salmon
- vegetable oils, particularly olive oil
2. Incorporate oats and barley into your diet
These two foods contain a special type of soluble fibre called beta-glucans, which in combination with improving other areas of your diet, can aid in further reducing blood cholesterol levels. In the gut, the beta-glucans form a gel that binds cholesterol-rich bile acids and prevents their absorption into the body.
Research has shown that you need to have 3g worth of beta-glucans per day for it to have a noticeable impact on blood cholesterol. In order to ensure you are strategic with getting enough beta-glucans, it may be worthwhile to seek out the help of a registered dietitian to help tailor a plan for you.
3. Add plant sterols and stanols
These products originate from plants, which from a structural standpoint, look similar to cholesterol but function in a different way. The main benefit is that they work to prevent the absorption of cholesterol in the gut. Instead of being absorbed into the bloodstream, the cholesterol is lost via our stool. This subsequently helps to lower total cholesterol and non-HDL cholesterol.
Diets that are mostly based on plants do not have sufficient amounts of sterols/stanols to effectively lower blood cholesterol. It is therefore advised that this be taken in a supplement form (such as a drinkable yoghurt or spreads) to get the 1.5g to 3g dose per day that clinical studies have shown to effectively lower cholesterol by 10-15%. Having more than 3g/d is not advised as this can lead to a reduction in the amount of fat-soluble vitamin absorption from our diet.
There you have my top tips to help get you started on making these dietary changes. If you think that a more tailored approach would be beneficial for you, head to my website and book yourself in for a free discovery phone call!