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.
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
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
Podcast - Five things you can do to lower your cholesterol
What are triglycerides?
Triglycerides 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
- 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
How you can I reduce my cholesterol
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
Quitting smoking can help to lower your cholesterol and
improve your heart health.
Will eating sterol-enriched foods help reduce my
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.
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