6 tips for lowering your cholesterol

Dr Nick Fuller
Leading Obesity Expert at the University of Sydney and founder of Interval Weight Loss.

More than one-third of the population have high cholesterol. Quite scary considering that heart disease is the leading cause of death, not only in Australia, but across the globe. It tends to creep up in our 30s and then peaks in our 40s and 50s. And if you don’t do something about it you are putting yourself at risk of having a heart attack and dying prematurely.  

BUT not everything with the word ‘cholesterol’ is bad for you. In fact, we need cholesterol to survive. Cholesterol is produced naturally by the liver because it has several vital functions in the body including the production of new cells and hormones which help the body function properly. 

If you don’t get enough from your diet, your body will produce it; it needs it to survive. The opposite also applies - when you consume dietary sources of cholesterol, such as eggs and prawns, your liver produces less! 

Cholesterol – a fatty substance that is carried around in the body by the blood – is a simple blood test that can be checked by your general practitioner (GP). There are two main types of cholesterol that make up your total cholesterol level: low density lipoproteins (LDL-C) and high density lipoproteins (HDL-C). LDL-C is the ‘bad’ cholesterol because it dumps cholesterol in our arteries, blocking them up over time. On the contrary, HDL-C is the ‘good’ cholesterol because it removes cholesterol from the arteries and takes it back to the liver for removal. We want our LDL-C to be low (less than 2.0 mmol/L) and our HDL-C to be high (greater than or equal to 1.0 mmol/L).

There are simple lifestyle changes that you can make to improve your cholesterol level and reduce your chance of dying from a heart attack. 

Try these 6 tips:

1. Switch your cereal

Oats are the best choice for your daily cereal. Not only will they fill you up for longer, they will also bring down your ‘bad’ cholesterol. Oats are a rich source of beta-glucan – a specific type of soluble fibre – which works as a sponge in the intestine, to mop up cholesterol and prevent it from sticking to our arteries. Opt for either rolled oats or steel-cut oats which are wholegrain sources of carbohydrate, or oat bran, which is higher in beta-glucan content, and therefore, will have an even more potent effect on your cholesterol level. 

2. Aim for 2 grams of plant sterols per day

Plant sterols are naturally found in foods such as nuts, legumes, breads and cereal grains and much like beta-glucan – the soluble fibre found in oats - inhibit the absorption of cholesterol in the body. Plant sterols are also added to foods nowadays and marketed as ‘cholesterol-lowering’. However, high quantities of these foods are needed to get the promised benefit of lowering your cholesterol, otherwise they are a waste of money, especially considering their high price point. For example, you would need to have five teaspoons of a plant sterol spread for an effect - the amount you would typically use on five slices of bread. But you could also meet your quota of two grams or three serves of plant sterols by adding in a glass of plant sterol milk or carton of plant sterol yoghurt to your daily eating plan.

3. Cut out the coconut products

The latest craze is certainly to use all things ‘coconut’ – whether it be coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut flour, coconut flakes, or coconut yoghurt. BUT we know that switching sources of saturated fat (for example, coconut products) for sources of poly- and mono-unsaturated fat (for example, olive oil) will reduce the ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood. Cut out the butter, coconut oil, cream, fatty cuts of meat, processed meats like salami and sausages, biscuits, cakes, pastries and takeaway food. Instead, opt for avocado and olive oil as your choice of spread and cooking oil; keep processed meats to the ‘treat’ category; and include nuts and seeds as part of your daily eating plan.

4. Beware the marketing scam

A product that is marketed as ‘0g of cholesterol’ or ‘cholesterol free’ is misleading. It’s confusing and it means absolutely nothing. For example, a product might be labelled ‘cholesterol free’ but also be high in total fat, saturated fat and trans fat which will inevitably increase your blood cholesterol.

5. Add more beans 

Increasing your soluble fibre intake by as little as five grams per day will decrease the level of ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood. Fruits, vegetables, wholegrain breads and cereals, nuts, and legumes (such as beans, lentils and peas) are all sources of fibre. And on top of the list when it comes to soluble fibre are beans. For example, a cup of kidney beans has 4 to 5 grams of soluble fibre. Just be careful to gradually increase the fibre intake into your daily eating plan to prevent some unpleasant side effects!

6. Get in your daily activity

Physical activity will actually result in an increase in the level of ‘good’ cholesterol in the blood and the benefits exist with all type of activity. Aim for moderate intensity exercises (70% of predicted maximal heart rate) on five days of the week, giving you a goal of about 15-20 km per week.

Take home tips:

  1. Visit your GP and have your cholesterol tested. This is especially relevant if you haven’t had it checked in a few years and you are in your 40s.
  2. Throw out the processed cereal you are currently eating and add a cup of oats to your daily eating plan.
  3. Add in your daily beans.
  4. Don’t ponder over labels in an attempt to find foods that are ‘low in cholesterol’ or ‘cholesterol free’. You’re simply wasting your time!
  5. Stop making excuses and start exercising. If you haven’t exercised in a while, talk to your GP and start gradual with low intensity walking.

About Dr Nick Fuller

Dr Nick Fuller is the founder of Interval Weight Loss and is a leading obesity expert at the University of Sydney with a Ph.D. in Obesity Treatment. Dr Fuller is also the author of three best-selling books and his work been published in top ranked journals in the medical field, including JAMA, Lancet and American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.