What is Cholesterol?

Health & Wellness
Last Updated Sep 29, 2020
Health & Wellness

Many Australians suffer from high cholesterol which can cause health problems.  But what is cholesterol, and how can we ensure that we have a healthy level of it?  Read on for more.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is an essential fat that is carried in the blood.  Every cell in the body needs cholesterol for their internal and external membranes, and it is also necessary for the production of hormones, and for other function in the body.  Generally speaking, the body makes the cholesterol it needs.

Some dietary cholesterol, that is, the cholesterol that we eat in our food, is excreted through the liver, but too much cholesterol in the diet leads to too much cholesterol in the bloodstream which can cause health problems.  A high amount of cholesterol in the blood is a risk factor for heart disease.  Levels that are above 6.5mmol/L mean that your risk of heart disease is about four times higher than a person that has a level of 4mmol/L.  However, not all people with high cholesterol levels will get heart disease.  It depends on the type of cholesterol that you have, good or bad.

Cholesterol levels should not be higher than 5.5mmol/L.  half of Australians have a cholesterol level higher than 5mmol/L, making high cholesterol a real health concern.

Types of Cholesterol

There are two types of cholesterol, LDL (low density lipoprotein), and HDL (high density lipoprotein).  HDL cholesterol is the good type of cholesterol and can actually protect your against getting heart disease as it helps to transport LDL or bad cholesterol out of the blood.  LDL is called bad cholesterol as it can oxidise and stick the walls of the arteries, causing them to narrow.

Reducing Cholesterol Levels

The most effective way of reducing your cholesterol levels if they are too high is by reducing the amount of saturated and trans fats in your diet.  Saturated fats are animal fats.  To do this, choose low fat dairy foods, lean cuts of meat; be aware of hidden saturated fats in pies and other processed foods or fast foods.

Replace these saturated fats with healthy fats such as monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.  These include olive oil, canola oil, avocados, most nuts, and the oils from seeds and grains such as sunflower and safflower oil.

Plant sterols are also a good way of reducing your cholesterol levels.  Many margarines now come enriched with plant sterols – look for ones that contain plant sterols, phytosterols, or beta-sistosterol.  Beans are a source of a type of fibre called pectin that binds to cholesterol and removes it from the body.  The essential fatty acids EPA and DHA can reduce triglycerides and improve the levels of good cholesterol in the blood. 

The tannins in tea can help to lower cholesterol levels.  Psyllium husks are also great for reducing cholesterol.  Garlic contains compounds that reduces the stickiness of platelets in the blood and reduces the levels of unhealthy fats in the blood.  It can also inhibit the manufacture of cholesterol in the liver and can increase the excretion of cholesterol.  While vitamin E doesn’t actually lower the levels of bad cholesterol in the body, it does make it less dangerous as it stops the cholesterol from oxidising and lining the walls of the arteries.

If dietary changes do not reduce your cholesterol levels satisfactorily, you may require medication.

Regular exercise is also important as it increases HDL or good cholesterol and reduces LDL or bad cholesterol.  This can be as simple as thirty minutes of walking daily.

Originally published on Mar 28, 2009

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