While cholesterol is important for our bodily functions, it could also cause problems if there are high levels in our blood. The fat that we eat gets changed by the liver into cholesterol and triglycerides. Since cholesterol is made in the liver, it is only found in animal products and not in vegetables.

Types of cholesterol

The cholesterol and triglycerides are packaged into lipoproteins for transport through the bloodstream. The two types of lipoproteins we are concerned about are:

Low density lipoprotein (LDL): Known as “bad” cholesterol because it gets deposited in the blood vessel walls. This condition is called atherosclerosis and can result in heart attacks and strokes. 
High density lipoprotein (HDL): Known as “good” cholesterol as it brings the bad cholesterol back to the liver.

Causes of high cholesterol

The most common reason for elevated cholesterol levels is poor diet, i.e. eating food with high saturated fat and cholesterol content. Animal fat is considered a form of saturated fat, whereas fats that are liquid at room temperature (such as olive oil, canola oil, safflower oil, soybean oil and corn oil) are unsaturated (polyunsaturated or monounsaturated) fats. Eating saturated fat increases LDL, whereas consuming unsaturated fat actually lowers LDL and raises HDL.

Trans fats (commonly found in foods like cookies, crackers, potato chips and margarine) are particularly unhealthy, as they raise LDL and lower HDL. Thus, consuming foods with trans fats is even worse than consuming foods with the equivalent amount of saturated fat.

High cholesterol tends to run in families. Other conditions that can lead to high cholesterol levels are diabetes (lowers HDL and raises LDL), a lack of thyroid hormone, obesity and rare genetic diseases.

Treatments for high cholesterol

Regular check-ups
The first step is to get your cholesterol levels checked regularly. You should perform a cholesterol profile as early as at age 20, and get re-tested every five years. More frequent testing (every one to two years) may be required if your cholesterol levels are not desirable.

Also, cut down on foods that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. No more than 30 per cent of your total daily caloric intake should be from fat, with no more than eight to ten per cent from saturated fat. Your total cholesterol intake should be less than 300mg per day.

Incorporate more green leafy vegetables, fruits, fish and white meat (instead of red meat) in your diet. Choose whole-grain breads, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, oatmeal and oat bran.

Moderate amounts of alcohol may increase the level of HDL. However, be careful not to over-indulge, as alcohol also increases caloric intake.

Moderate-intensity aerobic exercises reduce LDL and raise HDL levels and can help lower blood pressure. Diet and exercise can achieve up to a 10 to 15 per cent reduction in LDL levels, and a five to 10 per cent increase in HDL levels. For most people with high cholesterol levels, drug therapy would also be required.

This article was first published in ezyhealth on March 5, 2015.

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