The healthy heart guide

We speak to the experts to find out how to maintain healthy levels of cholesterol

Looking after the health of your heart involves maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Most of us have heard of so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol, but what is the difference between the two, and how can we achieve the right balance for optimal health?

“Cholesterol has a number of health benefits, as long as you have the right amount of the good cholesterol (HDL) in the blood,” says Shani Shaker, a registered nutritional therapist (www.superradiance.co.uk). “HDL refers to high density lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are a combination of fats and proteins which are essential for the body to restore tissues and cell membranes. High density lipoproteins move easily throughout the blood, unlike low density lipoproteins, which tend to move slowly through the blood because they are thicker, so often stick to the arteries through which they are being transported. This accumulation in the arteries can block the blood supply, leading to atherosclerosis and heart attacks. High levels of HDL can remove some LDL and therefore reduce the chances of a heart attack.”

It can be easy to get the two terms confused, but according to Shani a good way of remembering them is that HDL is good cholesterol which keeps the heart and arteries safe and healthy – think H for healthy – whilst LDL is bad cholesterol which clogs up arteries and can lead to heart problems – think L for lousy!

“The best sources of HDL are from oily fish, fish oils, nuts and olive oil,” adds Shani. “Foods high in LDL include eggs, poultry and trans-fats found in packaged chips, soups and other processed food. LDL can be reduced by limiting consumption of the above foods and embarking on a regular exercise regimen.”

Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables

“When trying to reduce your levels of cholesterol, make sure you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, aiming for five or more portions a day,” says Frida Harju, in-house nutritionist at health and fitness app Lifesum (www.lifesum.com). “For example, spinach contains plenty of lutein, which is thought to prevent cholesterol sticking to your arteries, thus reducing the risk of heart disease. Similarly, eggplants contain nasunin and phytonutrients, which reduce levels of cholesterol and improve blood flow. However, make sure not to fry your vegetables, as they lose their nutritional value and soak up the fats from the cooking oils instead.”

Stock up on soluble fibre

“If you have high cholesterol, soluble fibre is just too important to go amiss,” says Lily Soutter, nutritionist and weight loss expert. “This special fibre binds to harmful LDL cholesterol and bile acids in the digestive tract. This means that cholesterol is eliminated from the body rather than absorbed into the blood stream. Top sources include oats, oat bran, beans, lentils, sweet potato, almonds, apples and flax seeds.”

Enjoy an occasional red wine

Alcohol should only be consumed in moderation, however, the occasional red wine could be good for your heart. “Red wine is known for having a high content of a powerful antioxidant called resveratrol,” says nutritionist Shona Wilkinson from Superfood UK. “Resveratrol helps prevent cardiovascular health conditions such as high cholesterol by protecting blood cells and platelets. It also has a slight blood thinning property which helps prevent blood clots which are associated with heart disease and strokes.” Always bear in mind the government’s alcohol guidelines for men and women which are not to exceed 14 units of alcohol a week.

Get regular exercise

“Getting enough exercise and staying active can also help you lower your levels of cholesterol,” says Frida Harju. “If you are new to exercise, you should aim to do 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. This can be anything from taking a quick walk to going for a swim, effectively anything that raises your heart rate and makes you sweat. Additionally, as high levels of cholesterol have been linked to feeling stressed, exercise can help even further, as it produces endorphins and leaves you feeling happy.”

Time to quit

If you smoke, it is essential that you stop. The chemicals in tobacco can damage your heart and blood vessels, leading to atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries), which can in turn lead to a heart attack.

Did you know?

Found in only a handful of places worldwide, including Argentina and Australia, hi-oleic peanuts contain around 30 per cent more monounsaturated fats than standard peanuts, helping to support normal cholesterol levels as part of a varied, well-balanced and healthy lifestyle. HEART UK, the cholesterol charity, has given its formal approval to the new Whole Earth Hi-Oleic peanut butter spread, recognising peanuts as a great source of fibre, protein and vital vitamins and minerals.

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