Keeping the heart healthy in October – Cholesterol Awareness Month

Fruit and vegBy Lily Roberts, Centre Assistant for Centre for Health Policy and Patient Safety Translational Research Centre

As the month of October approaches for 2018, we’re reminded by Heart UK to bring awareness to the risks of having high cholesterol levels.

What’s the big deal?

It’s no secret that one in every four Brits is obese, an unfortunate truth that health professionals have attributed to poor diet and lack of exercise. Population-wide statistics for cholesterol levels are much more problematic to obtain, but what we do know is that these obesogenic behaviours are commonly linked to type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and other cardiovascular disease risk factors known collectively as the ‘metabolic syndrome’. The bad news is that this syndrome can lead to serious health events such as heart attack or stroke, but the good news is that it’s mostly preventable and treatable.

Friend or and foe

Contrary to common belief, the cholesterol we eat is not the sole influence on our total cholesterol levels. Adaptable factors include weight, physical activity levels, and smoking, and those outside of our control are genetics, age, and gender.

For an estimated 1 in 125 people in the UK, genes play a significant role in the regulation of cholesterol levels. The culprit is Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH), a genetic disorder which predisposes 0.8% of our people to a much higher cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk than the general population. FH is an inherited condition which affects the body’s inherent ability to monitor total cholesterol levels and dispose of any surplus. While this is not preventable as such, it can still be carefully monitored and controlled so as to prevent occurrence of serious health events.

Having said that, cholesterol is essential in the human body, and we need it to function normally. It serves as a structural component of cellular membranes, is vital for the production of vitamin D, and is also a precursor to bile acids, oxysterols, and steroid hormones.

Did someone ask for science?

You may be wondering how an essential component of our cell structure is associated with such poor health outcomes. The long and the short of it is, high levels of ‘bad cholesterol’ Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) in the blood have been shown to form atherosclerotic plaques, which ultimately form a bottleneck which restricts blood flow through arteries and increase risk of heart attack or stroke. On the flip side studies have shown that high levels of ‘good cholesterol’ High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) in the blood are protective against such events, as they work around the clock vacuuming up particles of LDL and transporting them to the liver for repackaging into higher density molecules. HDL cholesterol is sought from dietary unsaturated fats, while LDL levels should increase with consumption of saturated fats (though this is still a hot topic of debate and something we are bound to hear more on very soon).

So…what can I do about this?

An undebatable fact is that October is the best month of 2018 to take action, and below are three simple habits to work into your routine which are key to maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.

  • Eat fresh fruit and vegetables – big ones, small ones, green ones, purple ones, and as many as you can. What you’re after here is the soluble fibre, which is particularly plentiful in black beans, brussels sprouts, broccoli, avocado, and stone fruits. An NHS Digital report published earlier this year revealed that only 26% of adults and 16% of children were consuming five or more portions of fruit and veg per day, so be mindful of your intake of these nutrient powerhouses.
  • Know your fats: in the UK, our way of eating is commonly referred to as the ‘Western diet.’ Originating in the US, the diet is loaded with foods that are highly processed, refined, and nutrient-poor and those often referred to as ‘empty calories’. The crisps, biscuits, cakes, and other convenience foods we so often reach for are high in pro-inflammatory oils and refined carbohydrates, and are far from resembling the whole foods they originated from. While these foods are fine to consume sparingly, we need to shift our focus to the Mediterranean approach to food. These people are living longer than us, as represented in a recent news story, and it’s their prioritisation of healthy fats and fresh produce that sets them apart. Fatty fish, nuts, avocados and olive oil are commonly consumed in countries such as Spain, Greece and Italy, where the above-linked new story suggests that women will live 2-3 years longer than those in the UK. Increasing your intake of these fatty foods will provide omega 3 and monounsaturated fats needed to boost HDL levels in order to keep LDL levels at bay.
  • Move more: hate running? Sign up to a weekly boxing class. Want something lower impact? Try your hand at yoga and Pilates. If you don’t fancy any of these activities, aim to power-walk for at least 30 minutes per day. Ultimately, aim to find something that you enjoy doing and stick to it.

These lifestyle adaptations are simple and natural, so if you’re feeling proactive this October, make a few changes and see how it makes you feel. If you’re curious, make an appointment for a blood test now, and again in several months’ time to determine whether your blood lipids have changed.

Here’s to a happy, heart-healthy October!

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