Words by Jill Eckersley

Cholesterol is a fatty substance, made by the liver from saturated fats in food. It’s essential for health, as it’s used to make body cells and hormones, such as estrogen, cortisol and testosterone. It’s transported around the body in the blood, in combination with proteins. This combination, known as lipoprotein, comes in two forms – LDL, which carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells, and HDL, which returns excess cholesterol to the liver. Cholesterol is only a problem if your body produces too much of it. Then there’s a danger of it clogging up your arteries, causing heart disease. To help lower your cholesterol, follow these five simple steps…

1. A blood test from your GP will reveal your cholesterol levels. It’s important to know them because, although women are at lower risk of heart attacks than men until the menopause, you shouldn’t wait until then to get healthy! Smoking, being overweight, a poor diet, lack of exercise and family history are all known risk factors. Experts say they’d prefer to see an average total of 5.5mmol per litre or less. As well as this total level, the ratio of HDL (protective cholesterol) to LDL (harmful cholesterol) is also important – it should be four or less for optimum health.

2. Eating less saturated fat is the best way to keep your cholesterol levels low. You should reduce the amount of fat you eat generally, and avoid (as far as possible) both saturated fats, found in meat and full-fat dairy products such as butter and cream, and “trans fats”, which are often found in processed foods such as margarine, cakes, biscuits, ready meals, snacks and pastries. Grill instead of frying, trim excess fat off meat. Use poly- or monounsaturated fats, such as olive, walnut or rapeseed oil, for cooking or to dress salads.

3. As well as cutting down on fat, make sure the rest of your diet is heart-friendly. There is some cholesterol in food, especially eggs, seafood and offal, but this isn’t thought to contribute greatly to overall cholesterol levels. Oat bran and fibre-rich diets may help to lower cholesterol, as may spreads made from “plant stanols” or “plant sterols”– check the labels. Overall, a diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and wholegrain cereals is thought to be beneficial.

4. Exercise has been proven to increase the level of HDL – the good, protective cholesterol – in the blood. A study at the University of Berkeley, in California, found HDL levels in the 1,800 women runners studied rose steadily alongside their weekly mileage. Exercise is, of course, also important in weight control, and very overweight people tend to have high cholesterol levels and be at increased risk of heart attacks.

5. If you’re otherwise healthy, eat a heart-friendly diet and get plenty of exercise, but still have higher-than-normal cholesterol levels, your GP may suggest medication in the form of “statins”. These cholesterol-lowering drugs, introduced in the Nineties, can lower levels of LDL cholesterol by as much as 20 percent. About one in every 300 Australians are thought to be affected by a condition known as ‘familial hyperlipidaemia’, which causes high cholesterol levels. Once diagnosed, this can be controlled with medication. People with diabetes or high blood pressure may also need to take medication to keep their cholesterol levels under control.