It’s a myth that you have to be overweight to have high cholesterol - even young, fit, and healthy people might have an imbalance of the fatty substance. High cholesterol is largely asymptomatic and it’s shockingly prevalent, with reports that around 6 out of 10 adults have it.
The only way to measure your cholesterol is to take a blood test. This will identify whether you have high cholesterol and will also provide a breakdown of the level of HDL (‘good’ cholesterol) and LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) in your blood.
High cholesterol can be lowered by implementing diet and lifestyle changes. To monitor your progress, you should take a regular blood test. You should speak to your GP if you’re not seeing positive changes to your cholesterol, despite adjustments to your diet and lifestyle, as you may need medication to reduce it.
What is high cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that’s produced by the liver and ingested through animal products such as meat and dairy. It’s an important component for the production of healthy cells, but too much of it clogs arteries, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
To travel through the bloodstream, cholesterol attaches to proteins to make lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoproteins:
- High-density lipoproteins (HDL): This is known as ‘good cholesterol’ as it prevents the build-up of cholesterol in your arteries, delivering it to the liver so that it will pass through the body.
- Low-density lipoproteins (LDL or non-HDL): This is known as ‘bad cholesterol’ because it clogs arteries and puts you at risk of a heart attack or stroke.
When you have too much ‘bad’ cholesterol (or non-HDL cholesterol), you’re at greater risk of health complications such as a heart attack or stroke.
What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?
High cholesterol is hard to spot and usually doesn’t cause any symptoms until the build-up is so severe that you have a heart attack, stroke or blood clot. That’s why it’s so important to take a blood test.
Marginally high levels of cholesterol won’t cause a serious problem but when there’s too much build-up, the arteries are narrowed and blood flow is reduced. This is when you might incur a serious health complication.
One warning sign that might indicate you have high cholesterol is erectile dysfunction. Blood flow is an essential component for getting and maintaining an erection. This means that when blood flow is reduced (when the arteries are obstructed by the build-up of cholesterol), you might find it harder to get an erection. A study on the relationship between cholesterol and erectile dysfunction found a strong correlation.
Erectile dysfunction can also be caused by an imbalance of testosterone or diabetes. An erectile dysfunction blood test can help you to get to the root cause of the problem. Medications such as sildenafil, Viagra and tadalafil are used to treat erectile dysfunction.
What causes high cholesterol?
High cholesterol can be genetic and some people are born with it, but it’s more commonly associated with an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise. Here’s a breakdown of what might be causing your high cholesterol and why:
- Genetics: Removing LDL (bad cholesterol) from the bloodstream and dispelling it through the liver is more difficult for some people with certain genes. An inherited condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia causes a person to have high cholesterol even if they follow a healthy diet and lifestyle.
- Unhealthy diet: Food that’s high in saturated or trans fat leads to a build-up of cholesterol in the arteries.
- Lack of exercise: Exercise helps to increase levels of HDL (‘good’ cholesterol), and reduces the circulating levels of LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol).
- Obesity: If you have too much body fat, particularly around the stomach area, you’re at greater risk of having high cholesterol. This is because being overweight tends to increase LDL (bad cholesterol) and decrease HDL (good cholesterol).
- Smoking: Among the many risks posed by smoking, high cholesterol is one of them. Smoking can reduce the amount of HDL (good cholesterol) that you have in your body and the build of tar in your arteries makes it easier for cholesterol to cling to the walls and clog.
- Alcohol: Our body also contains a type of fat called triglycerides. Drinking too much alcohol can contribute to high levels of triglycerides, which can also lead to narrowing of the arteries, putting you at greater risk of serious health complications.
What’s the best diet for high cholesterol?
There are two types of fat: saturated fat and unsaturated fat. Unsaturated fat is part of a healthy diet and is found in food products such as avocados, nuts, and oily fish. Saturated fat is found in food products such as butter, cake, sausages, bacon, and cheese.
To lower your cholesterol, you need to cut down the amount of saturated fat that you consume and eat plenty of fibre. In some areas of your diet, this is simple. For example, swap coconut oil for olive or rapeseed oil - an alternative that’s much lower in saturated fat.
You may find it more difficult to cut out saturated fats such as those found in processed meats. There are plenty of delicious alternatives so make sure you follow a diet plan that satisfies your cravings, making it easier to avoid the unhealthy options.
7-day high cholesterol diet plan:
Some foods to avoid include:
- Fatty meat
- Coconut milk
- Cured meat
Some foods to incorporate include:
- Nuts or seeds
- Wholegrain rice
- Lean meat such as chicken or turkey breast
- Wholegrain pasta
- Oily fish such as salmon or mackerel
- Brown bread
- Kidney beans
- Sweet potato
The bottom line
High cholesterol isn’t easy to spot and it’s much more common than most people realise. As it’s largely asymptomatic, the best way to find out if you have high cholesterol is to take a blood test. Taking a regular blood test will help you to monitor your progress.
High cholesterol is usually caused by a diet that’s high in saturated fats and a lack of exercise. Following a healthy diet that’s low in saturated fat and high in fibre, as well as increasing your exercise will help you to reduce your cholesterol.
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