High cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in your blood. If you have too much cholesterol in your blood, it can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. 

See how Dave is lowering his cholesterol
This short film shows how Dave has lowered his cholesterol through healthy eating and exercise. Simple lifestyle changes can help you lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart problems too.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance carried around the body by proteins. When cholesterol and proteins are combined, they are called lipoproteins. There are two main types of lipoproteins:

  • Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) is known as the bad type of cholesterol. LDL carry cholesterol from your liver to the cells that need it.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is known as the good type of cholesterol. HDL carry cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver to be broken down.

Too much bad cholesterol (LDL) in your blood can cause fatty material to build up in your artery walls. The risk is particularly high if you have a high level of bad cholesterol and a low level of good cholesterol.

If you need to have your cholesterol measured, it will be in units called millimols per litre of blood (mmol/l). You should aim to have a total cholesterol level under 4mmol/l especially if you are at risk of, or already have, heart and circulatory disease. You should also aim to have your LDL under 2 mmol/l and your HDL above 1 mmol/l. If you have any questions about your cholesterol levels, speak to your doctor or call the Heart Helpline on 0300 330 3311.

What are triglycerides?

What is high cholesterolTriglycerides are another type of fatty substance in the blood. Like LDL cholesterol (the bad type), triglycerides are also bad. They're found in foods such as dairy products, meat and cooking oils. They can also be produced in the body, either by the body’s fat stores or in the liver. Ideally, your triglyceride level should be less than 1.7 mmol/l.

If you have high triglyceride levels, you may have a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease than people with lower levels. If you are very overweight, eat a lot of fatty and sugary foods, or drink too much alcohol, you are more likely to have a high triglyceride level.

What causes high cholesterol?

There is no one single cause for high cholesterol. Many different factors can contribute to high cholesterol such as:

  • Eating a diet that is high in saturated fat
  • smoking
  • lack of physical exercise
  • high alcohol intake, or
  • kidney or liver disease. 

Having an inherited condition known as familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH) can also cause exceptionally high cholesterol even if you have a healthy lifestyle. 

How you can I reduce my cholesterol level?

Eat a healthy balanced diet

Eating lots of fruit, vegetables, and wholegrain is better than eating foods high in saturated or trans fats. You can replace saturated fats with the healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as olive, rapeseed or sunflower oils and spreads.

You should also try to eat oily fish regularly. Oily fish provides omega-3 fats – the richest source of a particular type of polyunsaturated fat. Omega-3 from oily fish can help to lower blood triglyceride levels and help prevent the blood from clotting. It can also help keep your heart rhythm regular. Aim to have 2 portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily.

Choose foods that are high in soluble fibre such as oats, beans, pulses, lentils, nuts, fruits and vegetables. Soluble fibre can help lower cholesterol.

Saturated fat guidelines

At the moment UK guidelines encourage us to swap saturated fats for unsaturated fats.  You might have seen reports about a recent study we helped to fund which suggests there’s not enough evidence to back the current UK guidelines on the types of fat we eat. We think more research is needed before suggesting any major changes to healthy eating guidance.

 

Do regular  exercise

Regular physical activity can help increase your HDL cholesterol (the good type of cholesterol). Staying active is great way to keep your heart healthy.

Quit smoking

Quitting smoking can help to lower your cholesterol and improve your heart health.

Will eating sterol-enriched foods help reduce my cholesterol level?

Although the effect varies between individuals, there is evidence to show that plant sterols and stanols can help to reduce LDL cholesterol by levels up to 10-15% when 2 g  per day is regularly consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet.  But whilst there is an expectation that this would lead to fewer heart attacks, no clinical trials have been undertaken to show this. Sterols and stanols have been added to certain foods, including margarines, spreads, soft cheeses and yoghurts.

Will eating too many eggs raise my cholesterol?

For most people, the amount of saturated fat they eat has much more of an impact on their cholesterol than eating foods that contain cholesterol, like eggs, liver, kidneys, shellfish. Unless you have been advised otherwise by your doctor or dietician, if you like eggs, they can be included as part of a balanced and varied diet.

Will I need to take medication?

Whether or not you need to take cholesterol-lowering medicine depends on your overall risk of cardiovascular disease.

Cholesterol-lowering medicines such as statins are prescribed for people who are at greatest overall risk of cardiovascular disease. If you have questions about your medicines, speak with your doctor or call our Heart Helpline on 0300 330 3311. You can also look at our publications for more information.

Ali's decision to take statins
See how Ali is trying to improve his cholesterol levels.

Tackling high cholesterol

We think it's important to support research. That's why in 1989, we participated in the first big trial that looked at whether statins could help stop people with high cholesterol levels from developing heart diesease.The people who took the drug reduced their risk of having a first-time heart attack by nearly a third. Learn more about our heart research.