In the past, high blood cholesterol sent healthcare professionals into a panic and an immediate recommendation of a low-fat diet often followed. This is probably not the right pathway for you as the issue is more complex. There are many factors that may affect your heart disease, including genes, age, weight and diet.
The topic of high cholesterol is controversial and you’ll find differing opinions on dietary strategies even between doctors and dietitians, because elevated total cholesterol alone doesn’t instantly increase the risk of heart disease.
Why it matters?
First of all, you need this waxy fat.
Cholesterol is a crucial building block in cell membranes and is also used to make vitamin D, hormones (including testosterone and oestrogen) and fat-dissolving bile acids. Too much cholesterol can be problematic, however, and may build up in the arteries, leading to atherosclerosis (plaque that may block the flow of blood). When we talk about cholesterol, there are four different measurements – total cholesterol; low density lipoproteins (LDL); high density lipoproteins (HDL) and triglycerides (TGs). While your total cholesterol number is important, the other numbers can tell us a lot. For instance, it’s better to have a raised HDL level and a lowered LDL level, as HDL actually helps your body, while LDL often becomes plaque in the arteries. A high TG number often means you’re eating too many calories from things like refined high-carbohydrate foods and alcohol, which are converted into triglycerides.
Low fat or good fats?
Rather than following a low-fat diet – which is often high in carbohydrates from sugars, refined grains and other starches – it is better to know which fats are healthy so you know which fats to avoid.
Healthy fats, such as olive oil, avocado, oily fish, nuts and seeds, may help elevate HDL. On the other hand, fats found in processed foods such as cakes, sweet biscuits, pastries, pies and manufactured meats may contain the ‘trans fats’ that are strongly associated with heart disease, as trans fats both elevate LDL and lower HDL levels.
When it comes to meat, include lean cuts as well as chicken and fish, as recommended by the Australian Dietary Guidelines (eatforhealth.gov.au). And while full-fat dairy products will add more saturated fat to your diet, the main source is processed, refined discretionary foods. If you’re a big dairy consumer, try reduced-fat options to lower the amount of saturated fat you’re getting.
The bottom line is to maintain a healthy weight with a diet rich in good fats, whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, and to minimise processed foods.
Don’t forget about fibre!
With all the debate about dietary fat and heart health going on, it’s easy to forget about another crucial food – soluble fibre.
Found in fruit, vegetables, beans, oats and barley, it can help lower LDL levels by reducing the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream. Aim to get 25-30g of total fibre a day, making sure you choose soluble-fibre sources, such as a bowl of porridge with half a banana for breakfast, plus a small bean and vegetable salad for lunch or dinner.