HFG dietitian Zoe Wilson shows you some simple and practical steps to help bring your cholesterol down.
While our bodies do need some cholesterol, too much is definitely not a good thing. Having high cholesterol is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. It contributes to the build-up of fatty plaques on the walls of our arteries, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. This may sound scary, but the good news is that it’s also one of the risk factors that you can do the most about.
While most of us know that improving our diet by eating lots of fresh fruit and vegies, whole grains and lean protein; quitting smoking and exercising more can help, putting all this advice into practice can be harder. While the most important advice to listen to is that of your doctor, we’ve translated the research into 10 simple things you can do each day – that will help make a real difference to your cholesterol levels.
1. Add oats
Oats contain high levels of beta-glucan, a type of soluble fibre that has been shown to lower both total and LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol. A review of studies published in Nutrition Reviews found that people with normal or high cholesterol who ate 3g beta-glucan a day reduced their total and LDL cholesterol levels by an average of 5% and 7% respectively.
You can get 3g beta-glucan by including 60–80g of oats and barley throughout your day. Try having porridge for breakfast, a barley soup for lunch and an oat-based muesli bar as an afternoon snack. When you’re choosing oats, check the label as some brands will list the amount of beta-glucan per serve, helping you track your consumption.
2. Eat three serves of plant sterols a day
Plant sterols are found in some reduced-fat table spreads, milks and cheeses. Eating 2–3g a day can help to reduce your cholesterol absorption by up to 10%, according to the Heart Foundation. Products containing plant sterols include Flora Pro-Activ and Logicol spreads; Devondale Reduce and Dairy Farmers Heart Active milks; and Kraft live active cheese. You need to include three serves of each of these foods a day (which is equivalent to 2–3g plant sterols) in order to get the cholesterol-lowering benefit. You could have a glass of milk on your cereal, a slice of cheese on your sandwich at lunch and a teaspoon of table spread on your vegies at dinner.
3. Get moving!
While it’s recommended we do 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five days a week, it doesn’t have to be in 30 minute blocks – two or three 10–15 minute bursts are still beneficial. According to a literature review by the American Heart Association, the effect of exercise on cholesterol levels is well-established. Regular moderate to vigorous exercise has been shown to increase your HDL (‘good’) cholesterol and decrease your total cholesterol and triglycerides. Don’t like walking? You can run, cycle, swim or dance – as long as you’re puffing!
4. Eat beans!
Beans and lentils (legumes), including soy, can help reduce cholesterol levels as they are high in soluble fibre, which helps to reduce cholesterol absorption. Eating 1–2 serves (15–30g) soy protein daily can result in an average reduction in LDL cholesterol of 5.5%, and a 3.2% increase in HDL cholesterol, a review of 43 studies found. And it’s not just soy that will help. A smaller review of 10 clinical trials found including non-soy legumes in participants’ diets resulted in significant decreases in LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, with an average reduction of total cholesterol of around 5%. Non-soy legumes include chickpeas, pinto beans, baked beans and navy beans. You can include lentils, beans or chickpeas in soups, stews, chilli, pasta sauces, or curries. Try including soy milk, tofu or soy-based vegetarian products throughout the day too.
5. Include a handful of nuts a day
Nuts are high in heart-healthy unsaturated fats, soluble fibre and plant sterols. Including a handful or two (30–50g) of nuts daily has been shown to reduce both total and LDL cholesterol in a number of studies. Just watch your portion size so you don’t add too much extra energy to your day. Sprinkle walnuts on a salad, or grab a handful of almonds as a snack.
6. Eat 2–3 150g serves of oily fish a week
Salmon, tuna, sardines and some mackerel contain high amounts of omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to reduce LDL cholesterol levels and increase HDL cholesterol levels, (particularly if you also have high triglycerides). To help control cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease, the Heart Foundation recommends we consume 500mg omega-3 fats per day. This increases to 1000mg per day if you already have heart disease. Add tinned tuna to a salad or sandwich at lunch, put a few slices of smoked salmon on your toast in the morning, or cook a fillet of fresh tuna or salmon for dinner a few times a week.
7. Limit processed meats
Saturated fat is one of the major contributors to high cholesterol levels. Processed meats, such as salami and devon, are particularly high in saturated fat (with up to 12g sat fat per 100g, which is half the daily limit) so they should only be eaten occasionally. Try and limit processed meats to no more than two servings per week. Replace processed meats with lean proteins such as chicken breast or steak.
8. Replace butter with heart-healthy oils
Butter is around 50% saturated fat and is something many of us eat every day. Try replacing butter with unsaturated fats. For example, try using oils such as olive, avocado and canola in cooking, and use plant-based reduced-fat table spread or avocado for spreading on toast and sandwiches. Also try to reduce the amount of foods you eat that are made with butter. Replace cakes, pastries and biscuits with fruit, reduced-fat yoghurt or reduced-fat cheese and crackers. Making some of these simple swaps to reduce your saturated fat intake can reduce your total cholesterol by up to 10%, according to the CSIRO.
9. Include a sprinkle pf psyllium
Psyllium is another source of soluble fibre, which helps to lower cholesterol absorption. In a study of men and women with elevated cholesterol, taking a teaspoonful (5g) of powdered psyllium twice a day lowered total cholesterol levels by almost 5%, and LDL cholesterol by almost 7% over six months. Sprinkle psyllium husks onto your cereal, over salads or add to a morning smoothie. You can also bake it into healthy breads and muffins. Another option is to add a supplement such as Benefiber or Metamucil, which are made from psyllium.
10. Try tea
Compounds in tea called catechins may help lower cholesterol absorption, research suggests. People with mildly high cholesterol levels who drank five cups of black tea daily had an average drop of 5% in total cholesterol and 11% in LDL cholesterol, according to one study. Another review of 20 clinical trials found a similar result with green tea. The researchers found drinking green tea or taking a green tea extract capsule reduced total and LDL cholesterol levels by as much as 5–6 points when taken over a 3–24 week period.
Other things you can do
Reduce your alcohol intake
You may have heard that drinking red wine is good for your heart and may help to reduce cholesterol levels. According to the Heart Foundation, while red wine may help raise your HDL (‘good’) cholesterol modestly, alcohol in general is also a common contributor to excess weight due to its high kilojoule content, which is one of the biggest risk factors for high total and LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol. So, if you choose to drink (and especially if you have extra weight to lose), keep to a maximum of one standard drink per day for women and two per day for men.
Besides the many other reasons to quit, ditching this habit has been shown to increase your HDL (‘good’) cholesterol levels by as much as 10%. Visit www.quitnow.gov.au, download the quit app from the itunes store or call Quitline on 131 848 for advice.
How high is too high?
If you are over 18 years old, see your GP for a blood test to check your cholesterol levels. Your GP will repeat the test every 1–5 years, depending on what your levels are like. Ideally your cholesterol levels should be:
FOR PEOPLE WITHOUT HEART DISEASE (mmol/L)
FOR PEOPOLE WITH OR AT HIGH RISK OF HEART DISEASEe (mmol/L)
LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol
HDL (‘good’) cholesterol
What are triglycerides?
Triglycerides are a type of fat found your body which provide a major source of energy. Any excess calories from foods that are not needed for quick energy are turned into triglycerides and stored in fat cells to be used later. High levels of triglycerides have been linked to atherosclerosis (build up of fatty deposits in your arteries) and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Did you know?
Eggs used to have a bad name when it came to cholesterol. It was mistakenly believed that cholesterol-containing foods such as eggs would push your blood cholesterol levels up. However, research has found that eating saturated and trans fats are actually much more of a problem than foods that contain cholesterol. The current recommendation is a maximum of six eggs a week, so don’t be afraid to add eggs to your brekkie or to grab a hard-boiled egg as a snack.