WHO reports that elevated cholesterol is present in 54% per cent of the European population and 48% of the American. As an important contributor to CVDs, the number one cause of death in the developed world, cholesterol should be taken seriously.
And the first step is understanding what it is and how it works.
The role of cholesterol in our bodies
Cholesterol is a lipid, or fat, produced by our liver and transported by our blood to where it is needed.
It has many functions, the most important being building the cell’s membrane and maintaining healthy bones, teeth, and muscles. It is essential for the production of vitamin D and certain hormones.
When we say cholesterol, your mind probably jumps straight to eggs. It is true, eggs, specifically egg yolk, contains quite a lot of cholesterol. So besides the cholesterol we produce, there is another source of it – our food. Dietary cholesterol is only present in foods of animal origin.
How does high cholesterol impact your health?
Excessive LDL cholesterol particles in your blood can clog the blood vessels by accumulating on their walls. They clump together and form plaques which obstruct the flow of blood and make arteries less flexible. This process is called atherosclerosis.
It forces your heart to work harder, eventually weakening it. If part of the plaque breaks off and is carried away by the blood, it can get stuck in smaller vessels and cause a stroke or a heart attack.
The good and the bad cholesterol
Because cholesterol can’t move around your blood vessels by itself, it binds to proteins, creating protein-fatty spheres we call lipoproteins.
There are two main types of lipoproteins: HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein, LDL for low-density lipoprotein.
The LDL complex delivers cholesterol to cells and as such, contains more cholesterol and less protein. And since too much of cholesterol has a nasty habit of clogging your arteries, LDL is considered the bad cholesterol.
High-density lipoprotein is packed with more protein than cholesterol because its role is to transport cholesterol away from cells, back to the liver, where it is broken down and removed from the body. Less cholesterol means less chance of it gathering on the walls of your blood vessels, making HDL the good cholesterol.
What contributes to high cholesterol?
Minding cholesterol doesn’t mean excluding those eggs from your diet. Surprisingly, the intake of saturated fats has a stronger effect on cholesterol levels than the cholesterol on our plates. This is because saturated fats affect how our liver handles cholesterol.
Besides food, the following factors all contribute to elevated cholesterol:
- excessive consumption of alcohol,
- obesity (especially increased waistline),
- physical inactivity,
- type 2 diabetes,
- being male, South Asian, or having high cholesterol in the family.
How do I maintain healthy cholesterol?
The answer is: with regular physical activity, no smoking and excessive drinking, and with proper nutrition.
The Heart UK defines certain foods as “cholesterol busters” because they are so effective at helping us manage it. Cholesterol boosters are:
- foods rich in unsaturated fats (vegetable oils, avocado, nuts, seeds, oily fish),
- fruit and vegetables,
- oats, barley, and other whole-grain cereals.
Keep in moderation the combination of high cholesterol and high saturated fats found in:
- fatty meat,
- and processed meat.
Foods high in cholesterol but low in saturated fats are not so problematic. Those include eggs, lean meat, and seafood.
Genetic predispositions for high cholesterol
Certain genetic variants make you more likely to have a higher level of the bad and lower level of good cholesterol. To reveal your predispositions, we analyse the FADS, APOA, PPARalfa and many other genes, and then give you personalised dietary and sports recommendations.
A DNA test can be your first step to managing your cholesterol. Coupled with healthy nutrition and lifestyle, you can have it under control in no time.