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Cholesterol is a crucial substance produced by your liver and found in your blood. While it serves many purposes in the body, too much cholesterol can become problematic. High cholesterol levels are often a result of an unhealthy eating pattern. By adopting a heart-healthy diet, you can naturally lower unhealthy fats while increasing the intake of healthy fats.

Types of Cholesterol

Understanding the two main types of cholesterol is essential:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): Also known as ‘bad’ cholesterol, it can contribute to the buildup of plaque in your arteries, increasing the risk of coronary heart disease.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL): Referred to as ‘good’ cholesterol, it helps protect against coronary heart disease.

Measuring Cholesterol Levels

Although high cholesterol often presents no symptoms, it’s essential to visit your GP for a blood test to determine your cholesterol levels. For individuals aged 45 and above, cholesterol checks are recommended as part of a Heart Health Check with your GP. For Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander individuals, cholesterol checks should begin at 18 years of age.

Causes of High Cholesterol

Several factors contribute to high cholesterol levels:

  • High intake of unhealthy fats: Foods like fatty meats, deli-style meats, butter, cream, ice cream, coconut oil, palm oil, deep-fried takeaway, and commercially-baked products can increase bad cholesterol levels.
  • Low intake of healthy fats: Healthy fats, found in avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, cooking oils from plants or seeds, and fish, can boost good cholesterol levels.
  • Low intake of fiber: Including fiber-rich foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds in your daily diet can lower bad cholesterol levels.
  • Lack of physical activity: Insufficient exercise and physical activity can negatively impact cholesterol levels.
  • Excess weight and abdominal fat: Being overweight or obese, particularly with excessive belly fat, can contribute to high cholesterol.
  • Smoking: Smoking can raise cholesterol levels.
  • Genetics: Family history and genetic conditions like familial hypercholesterolemia can influence cholesterol levels.
  • Other factors: Excessive alcohol consumption, certain medical conditions (kidney and liver disease, hypothyroidism), and co-existing conditions (type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure) can also contribute to high cholesterol.
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Cholesterol and a Healthy Eating Pattern

What we eat directly affects our cholesterol levels and overall health. Adopting a heart-healthy eating pattern is recommended by the Heart Foundation. This approach focuses on consuming a wide variety of fresh, unprocessed foods while limiting highly processed options such as takeaways, baked goods, chocolate, chips, lollies, and sugary drinks. Apart from maintaining a nutritious diet, it helps provide essential nutrients to the body.

A heart-healthy eating pattern includes:

  • Plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
  • A variety of healthy protein-rich foods, including fish, legumes, nuts, seeds, and lean poultry
  • Unflavored reduced-fat dairy products
  • Healthy fats and oils like nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, and their oils for cooking
  • Flavouring foods with herbs and spices, instead of adding salt

This eating pattern is naturally high in fiber, which further aids in reducing bad cholesterol levels in the blood. It is crucial to be mindful of portion sizes since large portions can increase cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. A healthy plate should consist of a quarter healthy proteins, a quarter whole grains, and half colorful vegetables. Serving sizes may vary based on age, gender, and specific nutritional needs.

Tips for Lowering Cholesterol through Healthy Eating

In addition to following a varied and healthy diet, here are some helpful tips to manage cholesterol effectively:

  • Embrace a plant-based diet: Incorporate more plant-based foods such as vegetables, legumes, fruit, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Legumes make excellent alternatives to meat in various dishes, while tofu or lentils can replace meat in stir-fries or curries.
  • Opt for whole grains: Choose wholegrain versions of bread, cereals, pasta, rice, and noodles.
  • Snack wisely: Enjoy plain, unsalted nuts and fresh fruit as healthy snack options.
  • Use healthy fats: Replace saturated and trans fats with healthy alternatives like avocados, nut butters, tahini, and spreads made from unsaturated fats (canola, sunflower, or extra virgin olive oil).
  • Cook with healthy oils: Use healthy oils like canola, sunflower, soybean, olive (extra virgin is preferable), sesame, and peanut when cooking.
  • Include plant sterol-enriched foods: People at high risk of heart disease should consume 2-3 grams of plant sterol-enriched foods daily, such as margarine, yoghurt, milk, and cereals.
  • Enjoy fish: Incorporate fish into your diet 2-3 times a week, aiming for approximately 150 grams of fresh fish or 100 grams of tinned fish.
  • Moderate egg consumption: Most individuals do not need to limit egg intake, but those with high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, or heart disease should consume a maximum of seven eggs per week. Opt for lean meats and limit unprocessed red meat to less than 350 grams per week.
  • Select reduced-fat dairy: Choose unflavored reduced-fat milk, yoghurt, and cheese. Non-dairy alternatives with no added sugar and added calcium are also suitable.
  • Avoid processed meats: Limit or avoid processed meats like sausages and deli meats such as ham, bacon, and salami.
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For personalized advice, consult an Accredited Practising Dietitian. You can find a range of simple, delicious recipes, including vegetarian options and those with plant-based proteins, on the Ratingperson website.

The Role of Dietary Fiber

If you aim to lower your cholesterol, prioritize foods high in dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber, as they actively reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Increase fiber intake by consuming fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.

Dietary Fats

Following a healthy, balanced diet low in saturated and trans fats is vital for reducing cholesterol. Replace unhealthy fats with healthier options.

Unhealthy fats: Foods high in unhealthy saturated fats include processed or deli-style meats, deep-fried fast foods, processed foods, takeaway foods, fat on meat, ghee, lard, coconut oil, palm oil, cream, ice cream, and butter. Unhealthy trans fats are found in deep-fried foods, baked goods, takeaway foods, butter, and products with hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Healthy fats: Foods high in healthy polyunsaturated fats include soybean, sunflower, safflower, canola oil, margarine spreads made from these oils, pine nuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, fish, tahini, linseed, and chia seeds. Healthy monounsaturated fats are found in cooking oils made from plants or seeds such as olive, canola, peanut, sunflower, soybean, sesame, safflower, avocados, olives, and unsalted nuts like almonds, cashews, and peanuts.

Triglycerides in the Blood

Apart from cholesterol, your blood also contains triglycerides, a type of fat stored in your body’s fat deposits. Triglycerides are released by hormones to provide energy between meals. However, high triglyceride levels can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. By managing your diet and lifestyle, you can effectively lower triglyceride levels:

  • Follow a healthy diet, focusing on a heart-healthy eating pattern and reducing unhealthy fats, salt, and added sugar.
  • Choose heart-healthy drinks like water, tea, and coffee without added sugar over sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Consume foods rich in healthy omega-3 fats, such as fish like salmon, sardines, and tuna.
  • Reduce or limit alcohol consumption.
  • Maintain a healthy weight and reduce fat around your middle.
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Treatment for High Cholesterol

In addition to lifestyle changes like adopting a healthy diet and regular physical activity, cholesterol-lowering medications (statins) may be necessary to manage cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart attacks or strokes. Consult your doctor to determine the most appropriate treatment plan for you.

Where to Get Help

Reach out to your GP (doctor) or contact Dietitians Australia at 1800 812 942 for specific advice and guidance.

Remember, a heart-healthy diet combined with a healthy lifestyle can go a long way in managing cholesterol levels and promoting overall heart health.

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