Cholesterol - what is it and how to tackle it?

Cheeseburger displaying what is cholesterol and the effect it has on your health

Some people will be running, swimming or cycling 100 miles.  Others might just eat a little less butter.  The campaign to get people to live healthier lives, and by doing so to reduce their cholesterol is taking place across the UK this month.  National Cholesterol Month has been around for some time now, slowly changing behaviours, improving wellbeing and, by doing so, almost certainly saving lives.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol occurs naturally in the blood.  We all need to have some of it, it helps to make vitamin D and the hormones we need to keep our bones healthy.  However having too much of it can be a problem.  It can lead to heart disease and problems with our blood vessels. 

How do I check my cholesterol level?

Anyone can have high cholesterol levels.   While it can be associated with a poor lifestyle it can also be hereditary.  There are no obvious signs, no symptoms or ‘tells’.  You can find out about your cholesterol by doing a test, something the charity Heart UK recommends for all adults. There are products on the market which allow people to take tests at home, however these are not generally recommended. To do it right it’s best to get it done professionally by your GP or clinician. 

How do I reduce my cholesterol?

Over half of all UK adults have raised cholesterol according to HeartUK, meaning it’s a problem that affects all of us, either directly or indirectly.  However a few simple changes to our lifestyles can make significant differences to our cholesterol levels.  

Firstly diet.  Foods that are high in saturated fat such as sausages, fatty meats, cream, hard cheese, cakes and biscuits are health options to consider.  Even better, replace these foods with others that are high in unsaturated fats such as mackerel or salmon, avocados, vegetable oil and spreads.  At the same time eating more foods that are rich in fibre can help, think wholemeal bread, fruit and veg, and pulses like beans, peas and lentils.  There is a good guide on the HeartUK site. 

The second big change you should consider is doing more exercise.  According to the NHS the minimum benchmark you should be aiming for is 150 minutes of moderate activity (ie your heart rate goes up) per week.  

There are medicines - statins - that can be prescribed to lower cholesterol.  These can be highly effective, but should only be prescribed after consultation with your clinician.  

The good thing about tackling cholesterol is that a lot can be done with a few simple changes to our lifestyles.  Food, fitness and fun can make a huge difference.