Most of us don’t think too much about foods with high cholesterol. We only start getting interested about it when a blood test shows incorrect results. At that moment, we’ll start wondering how to lower our level of “bad cholesterol”… but what exactly is that? How can high levels of cholesterol affect our health? What foods are high in cholesterol? Here’s everything you need to know about the subject.
What is cholesterol?
We generally associate the word cholesterol with something bad – obesity, an unhealthy diet, excess eggs in the diet, and cardiovascular disease. We often forget that cholesterol is actually essential for the proper functioning of our whole organism.
Cholesterol is an organic compound from the sterol group that is necessary for the proper functioning of our body. It is a waxy, fat-like substance that is produced mainly in the liver, from where it reaches all body cells through the blood. Cholesterol plays a very important role – it is necessary for the formation of cell membranes, some hormones (female and male) and vitamin D, and it facilitates the digestion of fat and removal of toxins from the body. Cholesterol can be found in foods like red meat, high-fat cheese, butter, and eggs.
Cholesterol does not dissolve in water, so it cannot circulate in the blood on its own. To help transport cholesterol, the liver makes lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are particles made of fat and protein. They transport cholesterol and triglycerides (another type of lipid) through the bloodstream.
There are two types of lipoproteins. As explained by Queensland Health Department:
- “Good” cholesterol – High-density lipoproteins, called HDL cholesterol, are often thought of as ‘good’ because they remove cholesterol from your arteries and take it back to your liver to process and eliminate.
- “Bad” cholesterol – Low-density lipoproteins, called LDL cholesterol, are thought of as the ‘bad’ cholesterol, because they leave cholesterol in your arteries. While you need some LDL and HDL cholesterol for your body to work properly, too much cholesterol in total can lead to health problems as the extra LDL cholesterol builds up in your arteries. Excess cholesterol can cause atherosclerosis, which may slow blood flow through your arteries and create clots.
Safe cholesterol levels
According to Better Health Channel Australia, cholesterol levels should be no higher than 5.5 mmol per litre if there are no other risk factors present. If there are other cardiovascular risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, or a pre-existing cardiovascular (heart) disease, then the aim for the LDL levels would be less than 2 mmol/l. Approximately half of all adult Australians have a blood cholesterol level above 5 mmol/l. This makes high blood cholesterol a major health concern in Australia.
What is the cause of high cholesterol?
There are a few factors that contribute to high cholesterol levels:
High cholesterol levels are often associated with our diet. Eating foods that are high in cholesterol can cause many health problems and gaining of weight. A complex diet plays an important role in maintaining healthy blood levels. Unfortunately, in the era of fast food we consume a lot of saturated fat, which can be found primarily in animal products. To watch our cholesterol, we should give up high cholesterol foods like fast food, salty snacks, sweets, and instant meals. In return, our diet should include vegetables and fruits that are high in fibre. Fibre helps to lower cholesterol levels in the blood. Read more about foods that are rich in fibre.
Lack of physical activity
Lack of exercise also has a large impact on the increase of cholesterol in the body. Physical activity boosts levels of good cholesterol and increases the size of the particles which carry it through the body. Larger particles are less likely to block the arteries and create risk of cardiovascular disease. Additionally, exercise boosts our mood and helps us stay fit and healthy. Physical activity is recommended for at least 20 min a day. You can choose any activity you prefer, like a brisk walk in the park, a bike ride, or dancing.
Being overweight can increase triglycerides and reduce levels of “good” cholesterol. This ‘good’ cholesterol not only improves health, it also helps increase concentration and keep the mind clear. Research confirms that losing even a small amount of unnecessary kilograms can lower LDL levels. Additionally, maintaining a healthy weight is important for our overall well-being and self-esteem.
Gender and age
Studies show that cholesterol levels naturally rise after the age of thirty. Gender also makes a difference when it comes to cholesterol levels. Premenopausal women tend to have lower levels of cholesterol than men of the same age. After menopause, however, LDL (“bad” cholesterol) levels tend to rise. For men, the biggest problems with cholesterol begin after the age of 50. That’s why we should try to avoid eating foods that are high in cholesterol, especially after a certain age. Choosing the right diet and getting used to healthy, complex meals full of nutrients can take time, so the sooner we start, the better.
Everyone knows that smoking is extremely harmful. It can cause cancer and many other dangerous diseases. Additionally, smoking reduces the level of HDL lipoproteins (“good” cholesterol) in the body. As a result, blood vessels get damaged, increasing the risk of blood clots. Nicotine addiction and increased levels of LDL fraction increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases by several dozen percent. If you really care about your health, therefore, you should stop smoking ASAP.
If your cholesterol is too high, talk to your loved ones. In this case, knowing your family history is very important – it may turn out that your ancestors suffered from hypercholesterolaemia, a lipid disorder that promotes development of cardiovascular diseases. This increases the risk of a heart attack. If you find yourself in the at-risk group, you can still stay healthy by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and avoiding food with cholesterol.
Drinking a lot of alcohol
Even though small amounts of alcohol can increase “good” cholesterol levels in the blood, it doesn’t mean that it has a beneficial effect on our body. Many studies show that regularly drinking alcohol can increase the concentration of triglycerides in the blood, which can in turn increase the likelihood of developing cardiovascular diseases, atherosclerosis, acute pancreatitis, obesity, and diabetes.
The effects of high cholesterol
Unfortunately, there are often no symptoms accompanied with high levels of cholesterol. The worrying signals will only appear when a lot of it has accumulated and we begin showing signs of various diseases.
One of the first symptoms of high cholesterol levels may be severe pain in the legs. This is due to abnormal blood flow caused by clogged arteries. Another sign could be calf cramps, which usually happen while you sleep.
In addition, you can observe changes in the appearance of your feet. One worrying sign may be shiny and tight skin. When people have cholesterol issues, their legs will be pale and they will feel weak and tired. This is also an effect of poor blood supply to this part of the body.
Another symptom of high cholesterol can be the formation of lumps on the wrist and Achilles tendons, due to a build-up of cholesterol in the skin.
High levels of cholesterol in the blood can also cause coronary heart disease. Symptoms can include chest pain, which creates a feeling of pressure, burning, and crushing in the chest. This compression is located behind the breastbone and may radiate to the neck, jaw, abdomen, or arms. Pain can occur when stressed, during a meal, under the influence of cold air, and during exercise.
If you feel any of these symptoms, you need to go see a doctor as soon as possible as you may require medical help.
The worst food for high cholesterol
As mentioned earlier, food plays an extremely important part in maintaining the right levels of cholesterol in the body. If you want to stay healthy, you should be eating a lot of fruit, veggies, wholegrains, and nuts. A complex diet is everything. You should also eliminate or limit certain foods from your diet, including foods that are high in cholesterol such as:
- Butter. This is one of the major products on any list of high cholesterol foods. Butter contains saturated and trans fats, both of which can increase levels of bad cholesterol in the body. For that reason, you should definitely avoid or limit the amount of butter you use in your meals if you have problems with cholesterol. You can simply replace butter with olive oil or avocado.
- Eggs. They’re a great source of protein, vitamin D, B12, selenium, and choline, but eggs – especially the yolk – are real cholesterol bombs. According to the Heart Foundation, if a person is at risk of heart disease then they shouldn’t eat more than 6 eggs a week. If you’re unsure about your cholesterol levels or you want to keep them low, you should avoid eating too many eggs.
- Fatty meats. Many of us can’t imagine eliminating meat from our diet. After all, it’s high in nutrients like iron and vitamin B12. That said, we should be careful about the type of meat we eat, the amount of fat it contains, and how it has been prepared. In general, red meats (beef, pork, and lamb) have more saturated (bad) fat than chicken or fish. When you want to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, avoid the fatty bits of meat and limit the amount of red meat in your diet. It’s also best to say goodbye to fried foods, as fats used for frying can increase cholesterol in the blood.
- Sweet treats. The name “empty calories” has been assigned to sweets for a reason: these types of snacks have a huge amount of calories with no nutritional value. To be more precise, they mainly provide high-calorie fats and carbohydrates, and their composition is very poor when it comes to vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants or good-quality protein.
Sugars found in most sweet treats disrupts the lipid metabolism in the blood, increasing the level of triglycerides. In addition, saturated fats increase the LDL fraction of “bad” cholesterol.
Many sweets like chocolates, lollies, cakes, and cookies contain partially hydrated vegetable fats, which are a source of trans fats. They increase the level of the “bad” fraction and lower the “good” HDL cholesterol in the body.
- Fast food. We all know that eating fast food is not the best for our health. These kinds of meals are full of fat and chemicals that are added to make the food look and taste more appealing. Additionally, a big portion of fast food is prepared in a deep fryer. The oil used for deep frying, although of vegetable origin, contains numerous trans fatty acids. These are harmful and have an effect identical to the saturated fatty acids found in animal fats. Amongst other things, trans fatty acids raise the level of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) while lowering the “good” (HDL) cholesterol in the body. Therefore, the more of that kind of fat in our diet, the greater risk we have of developing atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. There are many more benefits of eliminating fast food from our diet – eating too much of it can cause obesity, mood swings, and even cancer. See how to stop eating junk food?
- Full fat dairy. Fatty dairy products contain large amounts of saturated fat. This group includes, among others, full-fat milk, cream, butter & margarine, condensed milk, and coffee cream. Processed cheese is the most dangerous. It has the most saturated fat and is heavily processed. An additional disadvantage to these types of foods is their calorific value.
How to lower levels of cholesterol?
If you have high cholesterol levels, or you want to maintain healthy levels, just follow these two simple rules: be active and follow a complex diet. What else do you need to remember?
Eat a lot of fibre
Soluble fibre prevents the digestive tract from absorbing cholesterol. That’s why you should include foods that contain fibre in your everyday meals. This can include fruits like apples, blueberries, or grapefruit, vegetables like pumpkin or carrots, and legumes like peas or beans.
Don’t forget about the good fats
We know we should avoid the animal fat found in red meat, but we can still have good fats. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids from sea fish or olive oil and nuts (especially walnuts) are good for us, as are sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. These lower the atherogenic LDL fraction, the level of triglycerides, and increase “good” cholesterol.
Get some Vitamins C, A, and E
These are the antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables, fish, oils, and nuts. They are important as they help lower cholesterol in the blood.
In order to stay healthy, we should completely exclude sweets from our diet. It’s not easy, but sweet treats are just a habit that can be forgotten with time. By slowly eliminating sweets from our diet and replacing them with fruits and nuts, we’ll stop having cravings for those unhealthy guilty pleasures.
Say goodbye to fried foods
If you want to lower your cholesterol levels, you need to avoid eating fried foods. Try to prepare your meals differently, like baking in the oven, steaming, or simply cooking on the stove.
Eliminate cholesterol-rich foods
If you want to lower your levels of cholesterol, limit red meats, especially bacon. Try to avoid or give up cream, butter, and hard margarines. Instead, you can include high-quality soft margarines which increase the absorption of unsaturated fatty acids. Other big sources of cholesterol and saturated acids are cold cuts, milk, and dairy products. It’s therefore best to choose lean meats (chicken or turkey) and dairy products. To lower cholesterol, avoid crumbed dishes, bread, fatty sauces, and pouring pan fat.
Mix it up!
Combine animal products (meat, dairy products, etc.) with fruits or vegetables that contain fibre. These can be in the form of a salad or added to sandwiches and dessert.
Eat your meals regularly
Eating smaller portions every 3-4 hours will help your body to better digest the food and absorb all needed nutrients. Each meal should contain either a fruit or vegetable that’s full of vitamins, fibre, and protein.
Replace meat with fish
Fish is a good alternative to meat and it should be on the menu 2-3 times a week. This doesn’t mean fish and chips, as remember that you want to avoid fried meals. Try to bake or grill a fish and serve it with a salad.
A healthy diet is extremely important in keeping cholesterol levels low. It’s important to remember that high cholesterol generally doesn’t come with obvious symptoms, but it can increase the risk of developing serious health conditions if left untreated. That’s why it’s important to go for regular blood tests and check-ups.
The Heart Foundation Australia recommends checking your cholesterol levels frequently. If you are 45 or older (30 or older for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders), see your doctor for a cholesterol test as part of a Heart Health Check. If you have a family history of high cholesterol, speak to your GP about your risk of heart disease.