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Your blood cholesterol explained

A couple cook in their kitchen, chopping up tomatoes.
Do you consider cholesterol in food when you're cooking?

Cholesterol often gets a bad rap, so much so that people might think it’s something to steer clear of. Most often, high cholesterol is the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices, which makes it preventable and treatable. Knowing exactly what your cholesterol is and how to manage it is a key to staying healthy.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fat-like, waxy substance found in your blood. It travels through the body and aids the production of hormones, acts as a building block for human tissue and helps the liver produce bile (which helps you digest food). Cholesterol is vital for making your body work properly.

Three quarters of the cholesterol in your body is produced by your liver. The rest comes from the foods you eat.

You don't need a lot of cholesterol

Although, we’ve learned that cholesterol is important for keeping your body in tip top shape, too much can be bad for you.

When your cholesterol is high, you can develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels. Eventually, these deposits grow, making it hard for enough blood to flow through your arteries, or block them completely.  By managing your blood cholesterol now, you can help reduce future health complications. But how do you do this?

Get to know your ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterols

When people speak about blood cholesterol you may hear people use the terms LDL and HDL cholesterols. If you get your cholesterol checked through a blood test, your doctor will talk about these two terms, so it’s good to know what they mean.

Cholesterol can’t travel through the body by itself. Instead, it hitches a ride with a compound of fat and protein called Lipoprotein (the taxi driver for your cholesterol). LDL and HDL are types of Lipoprotein.

LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein, but you can simply remember this as the “bad” cholesterol. This is because too much LDL cholesterol can stick to blood vessels, and as mentioned above, build up on the walls of your arteries, making it harder for blood to travel through your body or even stopping it completely.

Because of this, you want to keep your LDL levels low.

HDL, on the other hand, is your friend. It stands for high-density lipoprotein and is the ‘good’ cholesterol your body needs. HDL cholesterol keeps your cardiovascular system healthy and helps remove bad cholesterol from the blood vessels by carrying it to the liver, where it’s then broken down and removed from the body.

A spread of foods containing good fats.

Know your dietary fats

Cholesterol is essential for your body to function and  your body can make its own cholesterol.

Saturated fat mainly comes from animal products and can increase your LDL cholesterol levels. Trans fats, which can also increase your LDL cholesterol levels, occurs naturally in some foods in small amounts and is made from oils through food processing.

Foods that are high is saturated fat include:

  • Meat pies
  • Sausages and fatty cuts of meat
  • Butter
  • Lard
  • Cream
  • Hard cheese
  • Cakes and biscuits
  • Coconut or palm oil.
  • Fat on meat
  • Processed meats

Foods that contain trans fats include:

  • Baked goods like cakes and cookies
  • Frozen Pizza
  • Microwave popcorn
  • Deep-fried foods
  • Takeaway foods like hamburgers, pizza and hot chips

Unsaturated fats can help improve your cholesterol by decreasing your bad cholesterol and increasing good cholesterol so you should try and swap unhealthy fats for healthier fats in your diet. There are two types of ‘healthy’ fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Monounsaturated fats can be found in avocado, nuts like almonds, peanuts and cashews, oil spreads and extra virgin olive oil. Polysaturated fats can be found oily fish and seafood like salmon, tuna and mussels, as well as sunflower, canola, soybean and grapeseed oils.

Try some simple swaps to include healthy fats:

  • Choose nuts, fruit or veggie sticks over muffins, chips or biscuits
  • Swap deep-fried foods  in meals for steamed, boiled or pan-fried meals
  • Swap butter for pure margarine or nut butters

Knowing what you’re eating and being more mindful when it comes to choosing foods can have a big impact on your health over time. It is important to consider overall lifestyle habits too, such as ensuring you eat a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of high fibre foods like vegetables and fruit; maintaining a healthy body weight and quitting smoking, if you haven’t done already.

Get active

An active lifestyle can also help improve your cholesterol levels. Activities like walking, cycling, running and dancing are great options.

You should aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity on most days. While it’s important to remember that physical activity can help lower cholesterol levels, physical activity serves many other physical and mental health benefits, too, so it’s great for your health all round.

It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor to determine what exercises are right for you before you start a new physical activity routine.

A person unpacks a healthy lunch.

Know your family history

Did you know high cholesterol can be inherited?

Knowing that high cholesterol runs in your family might mean you need to keep tabs on it from a younger age than you might think. Asking your family about their heart health and cholesterol is important, just like you might for other health conditions.

When should I get checked?

If you have a family history of high cholesterol, heart disease or you have other risk factors, such as smoking, diabetes or high blood pressure, or you are concerned about your blood cholesterol, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor about checking your cholesterol levels through a fasting blood test.

If you have questions about your blood cholesterol, speak to your doctor for more information and health advice.

Learn more about cholesterol

How to get 30 minutes of exercise

Good vs Bad Cholesterol

Fats, Oils and Heart Health

10 ways to get the right balance of fat

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Last updated: 19 August 2020