The real reason your cholesterol is high – and how to reduce it

There's one food in particular you need to stay away from.
Woman and child cupping a red heart shape in their hands

Once you start careering towards mid-life reducing your cholesterol should be on your radar and here’s why: menopause is a primary factor in rising cholesterol because, when oestrogen drops, cholesterol often goes up. “Almost all people over 50 years of age have a change in cholesterol, but it does not always cause a build-up of plaque in the arteries,” says cardiologist Dr Ross Walker. “The question we need to ask is, how much plaque do we have in our arteries?”

High cholesterol is the leading risk factor for heart attack in Australia and affects around 1 in 3 adults. It’s a silent killer – there are no obvious symptoms until you run into serious heart trouble. There are two types of cholesterol: ‘good’ HDL cholesterol (which the liver processes as waste) and ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol (which can build up in the artery walls and cause stroke or heart attack).

Dr Walker recommends asking for a Coronary Calcium Score test through a cardiologist. The higher the calcium score, the higher your risk. But – good news! – any build-up can be reversed.

“Genes load the gun, but our lifestyle pulls the trigger,” says Dr Walker. “Exercise, diet, stress, sleep and more play a key role in our health.” Sometimes medication is required and, according to Dr Walker, there is evidence that supplementing with omega 3’s, magnesium orotate, bergamot or ubiquinol can make a difference.

Lifestyle tweaks that can help with lowering cholesterol

Colourful macaroons in a row
Sugar can affect your cholesterol levels

More important even than supplements is what you eat on a daily basis. Surprisingly, butter (in moderation) is not off the menu, but sugar is one to stay away from. “Sugar is much worse than saturated fat as it increases triglyceride levels and reduces healthy HDL cholesterol,” says Dr Walker. “This increases the plaque in the walls of the arteries, increasing the risk of cardiovascular conditions.” If you’re craving a sweet pick-me-up, reach for an apple instead – a Florida State University trial showed flavonoid-rich apples can actually reduce cholesterol.

Katie Strike, Accredited Practising Dietitian at Heart Smart Australia recommends doing these five things:

1. Consume more soluble fibre

Increasing the amount of soluble fibre you eat can reduce cholesterol absorption in your bloodstream. Soluble fibre is found in plant foods including oats, barley, psyllium, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and seeds, it can reduce cholesterol absorption in your bloodstream. 

2. Eat a plant-based diet

Plant sterols are natural compounds in plant foods that can help to block the absorption of cholesterol in the body.  You can increase your plant sterol intake by eating more plant foods or taking a plant sterol supplement.

3. Do more exercise

Keeping active is a great way to improve your cholesterol and heart health and it doesn’t involve watching what you eat. Try engaging in any form of movement you enjoy and can implement in the long term. For example, walking, cycling, playing a round of golf, netball or aqua aerobics.

4. Limit saturated fat

Saturated fat is found in red meat, butter, dairy products, processed foods such as cakes and biscuits, coconut oil and palm oil. When buying mince, why not try heart smart of 5-star mince over regular mince? Lamb chops, pork belly, sausages and meats with skins on can be very fatty so try skinless chicken, turkey or fish (even tinned) instead.

5. Boost the good fats in your diet

Replacing saturated fats with monounsaturated fats can lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fats are predominantly found in plant and fish sources, including nuts and seeds, extra virgin olive oils, avocado and oily fish like salmon or tuna.

The information in this article is of a general nature. For specific health conditions or before altering your diet see your doctor or health professional.

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