What you need to know about cholesterol

Did you know more than a third of all adult Australians suffer from high blood cholesterol? Thankfully there are simple and effective habits you can adopt to help manage the condition.

Unfortunately, many of us are forced to confront the reality of high cholesterol and its potentially negative impact on our health at some point in our lives. Though cholsterol is not necessarily inherently bad, high blood cholesterol has been linked to a slew of health problems. Fortunately, there are many simple ways to manage high cholesterol.

So, what exactly is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is produced naturally within the body. It is an essential part of all animal cell membranes as the sterol helps maintain membrane structure and fluidity. Blood cholesterol is created in the liver then disseminated through the blood stream. Normal levels of the modified steroid are beneficial for general health, but high levels of blood cholesterol can lead to heart disease and long-term health risks.

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The numbers
According to the Heart Foundation high cholesterol is the second greatest contributor to heart disease, accounting for more than 36% of cases. Statistics reveal that men and women essentially have an even risk of developing high total cholesterol. The age group most at list? Those of us who are aged 55 to 64 are most at risk of developing cardiovascular and other diseases as a result of high total cholesterol, with almost one in two of us suffering from the imbalance.

Many cases of high cholesterol often go unnoticed. In a recent study even though 32.8% of Australians had abnormal or high total cholesterol levels, only 10.1% self-reported having high cholesterol. So many of us are unaware of the condition and the potential negative effects it may be having on us.

Good and bad cholesterol
There are two main types of blood cholesterol.

  1. Low-density lipoprotein (known as LDL) is the bad kind of cholesterol associated with plaque in the heart's arteries, heart disease and other illnesses.
  2. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is known as ‘good’ cholesterol because it aids in cell recovery and can help prevent heart disease.

Not surprisingly, doctors suggest to aim to keep LDL levels low and HDL levels high.

High blood cholesterol is not associated with any overt symptoms and many sufferers report no difference in their overall wellbeing, which is why regular blood tests are important. A positive blood test can help you understand the severity of your condition and its many treatment options. Speak to your GP for a more in-depth run-down of your options.

What causes it?
'Dietary cholesterol' refers to animal products that naturally contain cholesterol. However high cholesterol levels in the blood are caused by foods that are high in saturated and trans-fats. High blood cholesterol levels develop as a result of a poor diet.

There are also a significant number of people who have a genetic pre-disposition to cholesterol, with many suffering despite a nutritious and healthy diet. Depending on your family history, a unique genetic structure may inhibit the natural production of cholesterol lowering sterols. In these cases, medication is often the best option. Your health expert will advise you.

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Thankfully there are many ways to treat high cholesterol levels. Lifestyle and dietary changes are the easiest and least invasive ways of dealing with a positive diagnosis. Those who are particularly at risk of heart related events may be prescribed medicines such as statins to help manage the illness on a pharmaceutical level.

Lifestyle changes
If you've been diagnosed with high LDL cholesterol levels (and medication is not called for), simple dietary and lifestyle changes can make a huge difference. Here are 8 tips from the CSIRO for reducing your blood cholesterol levels.

  1. Reduce saturated and trans-fats in any way possible!
  2. Stay away from cakes, biscuits and pastries - they are heavy in unnoticed fats.
  3. Consume reduced fat milk and polyunsaturated or monounsaturated margarine.
  4. Remove fat from meats (red and white) and choose lean, heart-healthy cuts.
  5. Eat more fish - twice a week has been said to reduce the risk of heart disease.
  6. Eat foods of plant origin, nuts, legumes (high fibre) and especially fruit.
  7. Lose weight and exercise more consistently.
  8. Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol abuse. 

Seeking more information to help managing high blood cholesterol? The CSIRO's Healthy Heart Program is a comprehensive program including healthy eating plans, a 12-week menu with hundreds of recipes and details of an easy exercise routine.

The best news is that simple changes you make can really help. Why not start today?

Do you have high cholesterol? Join our conversation below…