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Cholesterol levels - What they mean and 6 ways to improve them.

1. What is a normal cholesterol level? Why is lower cholesterol better?

Recommended cholesterol levels are as follows:

Table describing cholesterol levels
Recommended Cholesterol Levels as per Irish Heart Foundation

The reason we should care about cholesterol levels, is because we can synthesise the amount that we need to make steroids, and cell membranes in the body, all by ourselves. We actually don't require cholesterol from our diet because we can make it. So that bears the question - what happens with the excess cholesterol we get from our diet?

We get an increase in our blood cholesterol levels when we eat too many foods high in saturated fats, or when we have a genetic condition that causes it to be higher than normal (familial hypercholesterolaemia). Your cardiovascular system, is basically your heart ('cardio') and your blood vessels ('vascular'). When we have high cholesterol levels, we increase our chances of developing atherosclerosis, which is a form of cardiovascular disease.

In atherosclerosis, hardened plaques make our blood vessels narrower, like a clogged pipe - when there is a lot of water trying to flow through a narrow pipe, you can imagine this increases the pressure put on the pipe! This is just like how when we have narrower blood vessels, the blood which our heart is trying to pump around our body, is being pushed out against greater pressure - and hence we have high blood pressure, associated with high cholesterol. Having high blood pressure puts extra demands on . our heart - for a while our heart will pump harder to counter the pressure it is experiencing, but eventually the muscles in our heart essentially becomes exhausted and we get and . enlarged, flabby heart, which has less ability to pump strongly. As you can see, this is a vicious cycle that we do not want to enter - so how can we act NOW to prevent having heart problems down the line?

How to improve your blood cholesterol and heart health - 6 changes to make to your daily life

1. Eat less foods containing saturated fat, avoid trans fat:

These include: meat pies, sausages, other fatty meat, butter, lard, cream, cakes and biscuits, foods containing coconut or palm oil. Trans fats have been shown to increase total cholesterol levels.

hamburger and french fries
Hamburgers are made with fatty meat - this whole meal is high in saturated fat. If this is something which you enioy eating, make sure it is not a regular occurrence, and is enjoyed only sparingly.

2. Quit smoking!

If you smoke, here is reason number 100000001 to quit smoking - there is a chemical in cigarettes called acrolein, which stops HDL('good') cholesterol from 'mopping up' fatty deposits and . bringing them to the liver, which leads to atherosclerosis ( see above!)

3. Engage in regular exercise -

Engage in . 30 mins exercise, 5 times per week, or 20 mins vigorous exercise, 3 times per week. This can help raise our levels of 'good' cholesterol!

Girl standing on top of mountain after hike
This is me in the middle of a very high-intensity hike up to The Spinc in the Wicklow Mountains - I did the route that is 9.1km, and the climb was quite steep, and the views were amazing. Even though this was great exercise, it didn't feel like a chore because I really . enjoyed the views and having a chat along the way. I highly recommend this hike to any tourists visiting Ireland!

4. Consume more food containing soluble fibre -

Swap foods containing saturated fats for fruit, vegetables, wholegrains. A low-fat diet including lots of fibre, such as wholegrain rice, bread and pasta, and plenty of fruit and vegetables has also been shown to help lower cholesterol.

bowl of cacao flavoured porridge oats with banana, raspberries, flaxseed and blueberries
This is what I eat for breakfast every day - and it is FULL of soluble dietary fibre, which helps to soak up cholesterol! The combination of oats, fruits and flaxseed is a winner in terms of heart and digestive health, as well as jam packed full of antioxidants and vitamins. Recipe: Cook oatmeal with water, add 1 tsp cacao when almost cooked and stir in. Add chopped banana, any other fruit you want, some flaxseed, and serve with some 0% fat, 0% sugar yoghurt if you wish!

5. Consume foods containing unsaturated fats as part of your balanced diet.

We do need some fat in our diets, so swap saturated fat, which is in fatty meats etc as mentioned above, for unsaturated fat. Such foods include: oily fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna), nuts and seeds, olive oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil. These contain . omega 3 fatty acids, which were studied . when it was realised that Greenland Inuit people have a lower risk of heart disease despite consuming a high-fat diet (because the fats are healthy fats - in fish etc!)

chicken, tomato and avocado salad
Chicken is a nice lean meat choice, and avocado is full of unsaturated . fats . - be careful in terms of portion sizes, but when . eaten in moderation, avocado is a great addition to get healthy fats into your diet, which are good for your heart health (in balanced, healthy amounts).

6. Get regular check ups with your GP or pharmacist to check BMI, cholesterol levels, blood glucose levels, blood pressure... etc.

Catching symptoms suggestive of the metabolic syndrome early is key to preventing it from leading to complications such as Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Disease. Metabolic syndrome is when someone has at least 3 of these 5 medical conditions:

  • Abdominal obesity

  • high blood pressure

  • high blood glucose when fasting

  • high serum triglycerides (fats in your blood!)

  • low levels of . 'good' cholesterol

What will you do to keep your heart happy this week? I challenge you to make one change based on the list above. Let me know if you do, by emailing, chat, comments, or on facebook or instagram! Sending out positive vibes to you this week, and as always, if you have any questions drop me a message, my friends.


Lauren x

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