An important way of keeping cholesterol levels in range is to have a healthy lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle is made up of many different things, all of which are equally important as they directly impact one another.
For example, lowering cholesterol involves doing the following consistently;
- Eating a healthy and balanced diet
- Doing regular exercise
- Limiting alcohol consumption
- In some cases, taking medication prescribed by your doctor
Reducing cholesterol is important because there are many health risks associated with high cholesterol including angina (a type of chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart), heart attack, stroke and peripheral vascular disease (a blood circulation disorder that causes the blood vessels outside of your heart and brain to narrow, block, or spasm).
Additionally, if you have any existing health conditions, high levels of bad cholesterol can make them worse, as the cholesterol can build up and prevent organs such as the brain and heart from getting enough blood and oxygen to function properly.
What is high cholesterol?
High cholesterol is a condition where someone has a lot of low density lipoprotein, also known as LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol, increasing their risk of heart disease and blood vessel disease.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that is produced by the liver in order to build and repair cells, as well as produce hormones. There are two types of cholesterol; one being good and one being bad.
- High density lipoprotein (HDL) is considered good cholesterol, as it stops bad cholesterol from building up by transporting it to the liver to be removed from the body.
- Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is considered bad cholesterol, as it leads to fatty deposits (plaque) that build up in the bloodstream and cause health complications if left unchecked.
What are the causes of high cholesterol?
High cholesterol is caused by a number of factors, including;
- Eating a lot of foods containing unhealthy saturated and trans fats (e.g. processed meat, full fat dairy products, coconut and palm oil, deep-fried takeaway foods, commercial baked goods, etc.)
- Eating little to no foods containing healthy fats that increase HDL (e.g. avocados, nuts, seeds, olives, cooking oils made from plants or seeds, fish, etc.)
- Getting little to no fibre in your diet from foods such as vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Fibre, particularly soluble fibre, helps reduce LDL in your blood.
- Getting low levels of activity and exercise.
- Carrying excess weight or having too much body fat around your midsection.
- Smoking, especially smoking daily.
- Genetics. If you have a family history of high cholesterol, there’s a significant chance that you might have high cholesterol.
Are there symptoms of high cholesterol?
Many Australians don’t know that they have high cholesterol because there are no symptoms and the only way to diagnose it with certainty is through a blood test from your doctor.
There are health complications that come from high cholesterol that have their own symptoms; such as shortness of breath and chest pain from angina, or leg pain from peripheral vascular disease. However, don’t wait for these symptoms to appear before you talk to your doctor about high cholesterol.
How is high cholesterol diagnosed?
To effectively diagnose high cholesterol, your doctor will order a blood test called a lipid profile. Lipid profiles measure total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol as well as triglycerides (another type of fat that appears in the blood).
Your doctor will ask you to fast (not eat) and only drink water for about 10 hours before the test.
How often should I have my cholesterol checked?
Your doctor will order a lipid profile if they want to assess your risk of developing heart disease. However, it is recommended that everyone over the age of 45 (30 for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people) gets a lipid profile every 5 years in order to stay on top of their cholesterol.
If you have multiple risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure or diabetes, you will need to take a lipid test more regularly. However, that is something you need to discuss with your doctor.
What are some general healthy eating recommendations for reducing cholesterol?
A varied and healthy diet plays an important role in reducing bad cholesterol. To stay healthy,
- Eat more plant based foods (e.g. vegetables, legumes, fruit, wholegrains, nuts and seeds)
- Include legumes and beans in at least two meals per week
- Replace fatty meats with lentils or tofu
- Eat more whole grain breads, cereals, pasta, rice and noodles
- Snack on plain, unsalted nuts and fresh fruit
- Use spreads with healthy unsaturated fats such as avocado, nut butters, tahini and oils such as canola, sunflower or extra virgin olive oil
- When cooking, use healthy oils such as canola, sunflower, soybean, olive (extra virgin is a good choice), sesame and peanut oils
- Eat fish two to three times a week (150g fresh or 100g tinned)
- Limit the amount of eggs you eat to a maximum of 7 each week
- Choose unflavoured, reduced fat dairy products
Additionally, if you need further help with your diet, you can talk to your doctor and/or a dietitian.
What other ways are there to treat high cholesterol?
Eating a healthy diet is only one way to help to reduce high cholesterol. In addition to healthy eating, there are a few other ways to also help to reduce high cholesterol.
Regular physical activity
Exercise is a great way to increase levels of HDL cholesterol, especially vigorous aerobic exercise. This may also help you reduce any excess weight, particularly body fat around your waist area.
It’s never too late to start exercising; and if you’re new to exercise or you haven’t exercised in a while, start slow and gradually build up to the recommended amount of physical activity.
It is recommended that;
- People aged 18-64 years do 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days of the week.
- People aged 65 years and over aim for a total of 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days.
Moderate intensity exercise is exercise that increases your heart rate and breathing, but isn’t too strenuous that you can’t talk. Vigorous intensity exercise increases your heart rate and makes your breathing more heavy.
Also aim to do resistance training and muscle toning exercises twice a week. This involves using weights, resistance bands or your own body weight. Doing these types of exercises is a good way to increase your HDL levels.
Smoking has several negative health effects, such as;
- Reducing your HDL cholesterol
- Speeding up the rate at which fatty plaques form in the walls of your arteries
- Increases the likelihood of your blood clotting
Stopping smoking is one of the best ways to improve your heart and blood vessel health. To quit smoking, you can;
- Talk to your doctor
- Call Quitline on 137848 or use their online chat service (there is also Aboriginal Quitline as well, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people)
Drinking alcohol regularly also has negative health effects, such as;
- Increasing the amount of triglycerides in your blood
- Increasing your blood pressure
- Adding to your weight (alcoholic drinks can be high in kilojoule count)
It is recommended that you limit your intake to no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 drinks per day.
Talk to your doctor about whether or not you require medication to help reduce your cholesterol (in addition to living a healthy lifestyle). The most common form of medication that a doctor will prescribe for this are tablets known as statins.
Statins reduce cholesterol production in the liver. Your liver responds to this deficit by using the cholesterol already in your blood, which lowers your overall LDL cholesterol.
If you are unsure about any changes you need to make in order to effectively reduce your cholesterol, talk to your doctor. They can use your medical history to help you to decide on a plan that will work for you.
Can the Life! program help me reduce cholesterol?
If you have been diagnosed with high cholesterol, the Life! program can help!
The Life! program is a free healthy lifestyle program that helps you improve your eating habits, increase your physical activity and manage stress. You can choose from a group course or the telephone health coaching service.
Our experienced health professionals will help you make small changes to your lifestyle so that you can achieve your health goals and reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
Life! is funded by the Victorian government and managed by Diabetes Victoria. You can check your eligibility for the program here.
Elleni Kaias, Accredited Practicing Dietitian | Primary Care Engagement Lead
Kristie Cocotis, Head of Prevention and Health Promotion
Sarah Dubé, Strategy and Engagement Lead
Ria Cheripuram, Digital Communications Officer
Tegan Kohlman, Communications and Social Marketing Officer