Can you lower your cholesterol just by changing your diet?

According to British Heart Foundation, Coronary Heart Disease is the most common cause of death in the UK. Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in our blood. High cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of heart disease.  Factors which contribute to high cholesterol include:

  • - eating a diet that is high in saturated fat & low in fruit and veg
  • - smoking
  • - lack of physical activity
  • - high alcohol intake
  • - kidney or liver disease
  • - having diabetes or high blood pressure

Having a healthy balanced diet and active lifestyle is the most important thing you can do, however supplementation with plant sterols is also proven to help.  

Which supplements can help lower my cholesterol?

Plant Sterols (phytosterols) are similar in structure to cholesterol and act in a similar way in plant cell membranes as cholesterol does in our cells. Plant sterols contribute to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels. They are natural substances found in small amounts in everyday foods like fruits and vegetables, vegetable oils and nuts and grains.

How do plant sterols work?

Plant sterols have a similar chemical structure to cholesterol and they decrease the absorption of cholesterol in the gut, as more of plant sterols are absorbed, this partially blocks the absorption of cholesterol. This reduction in cholesterol absorption increases our liver’s uptake of LDL “bad” cholesterol and as a result can reduce our blood LDL cholesterol levels. Most diets provide a small amount of plant sterols (around 300mg per day); vegetarian diets contain about twice this amount. It is not possible to get enough plant sterols to help lower cholesterol from the foods we eat.[i]

How much plant sterols do I need to take?

The beneficial effect is achieved with a daily intake of at least 0.8 g (800mg) of plant sterols. Consumption of more than 3g  per day of plant sterols should be avoided. You should consult your doctor if you are on cholesterol lowering medication, or any other medication before taking plant sterols.  Eating regular portions of fruit and vegetables to help maintain carotenoid levels are also advised.  As the consumption of plant sterols can interfere with the absorption of beta-carotene, it is important to choose at least one fruit or vegetable high in beta-carotene (such as carrot, pumpkin, squash, peppers, broccoli, spinach, apricot, mango or rock melon) daily.

What changes should I make to my diet?

Our diet, especially the amount of saturated fat we eat, can affect levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. Replacing foods such as butter, cream and fatty meats, sausages, pies, bacon with reduced fat dairy products, lean meat and unsaturated fats from vegetable oils and spreads can help lower your saturated fat intake. Healthier fats include olive, sunflower or rapeseed oil, walnuts, avocados, fish, trimming fatty cuts of meats and grilling when cooking can also help.

In combination with a balanced diet, taking plant sterol supplements every day can have an additional cholesterol-lowering benefit. Eating oily fish or taking fish oil supplements can also help to keep our hearts healthy. Did you know we should be eating 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be an oily fish such as salmon, fresh tuna, herring and sardines? 

Can anybody take plant sterols?

Plant sterols are intended for those who need to reduce cholesterol levels. It is not intended for people who do not need to control their blood cholesterol level. Plant sterols are suitable for pregnant & breastfeeding women, children under the age of 12. To get the beneficial effects, plant sterols should be taken continually. If you are taking statins, its fine to use plant sterol products as they work in different ways to reduce cholesterol, the effect can be cumulative. But remember that these plant sterols aren't substitutes for prescribed medications.[ii] It is important to make changes to your diet and lifestyle to help reduce your cholesterol levels and your overall risk of heart disease.

What should my cholesterol levels be?

Blood cholesterol is measured in units called millimoles per litre of blood, often shortened to mmol/L.

As a general guide, total cholesterol levels should be:

•5 mmol/L or less for healthy adults or 4 mmol/L or less for those at high risk

As a general guide, LDL levels should be:

•3 mmol/L or less for healthy adults or 2 mmol/L or less for those at high risk

An ideal level of HDL is above 1 mmol/L.  A lower level of HDL can increase your risk of heart disease. (NHS)

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 and shellfish. Unless you have been told otherwise by your doctor, if you like eggs, they can be included as part of a balanced diet.

This Article was written by Nazli Dag