Nutrition tips for a healthy heart and lower cholesterol

Cholesterol has become a regular part of our modern vocabulary. We might say “I’m keeping an eye on my cholesterol” as we decline a piece of cake, or we might say “nobody tell my cholesterol” as we accept a piece of cake. 

Yet the thing is, cholesterol isn’t always bad. And you don’t always know whether yours is too high. It can be a somewhat complicated topic, so we approached Annelies Grimshaw, Director and Nutritionist at Key Nutrition, to help us make sense of it all. 

You’ll find her expert knowledge and advice throughout this article like chocolate sprinkles on a cake. Or perhaps like diced tomato cubes on a salad… 

What is cholesterol?

In a nutshell, cholesterol is a type of fat. Known as a lipid, it’s found in cells and tissue throughout your body, where it plays an important role in a number of basic bodily functions. 

As Annelies points out, there are two key types of cholesterol – one ‘good’ and one ‘bad’. 

Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) Cholesterol is the ‘bad one’. It transports cholesterol from your liver to your cells, where it builds up in your arteries. Think of your arteries like straws, with LDL cholesterol moving through and getting stuck, slowly narrowing this pathway and hardening over time. That makes it harder for blood to flow through to the heart and other organs. This condition is known as atherosclerosis, which increases the risk of heart disease. 

Then there’s the ‘good’ type of cholesterol – High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL). This undoes the work of LDLs by removing cholesterol from your bloodstream and taking it to the liver where your body can eliminate it. As a result, “higher levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease,” explains Annelies. 

Why is cholesterol important?

On top of the ongoing battle between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol, this lipid is also involved in a variety of other functions throughout the body. 

Here’s Annelies’ list of places where your cholesterol is hard at work:

  • Cell Membranes: Cholesterol helps maintain the integrity and fluidity of cell membranes, allowing them to function properly.
  • Hormone Production: Cholesterol is a precursor for the synthesis of various hormones, including sex hormones (estrogen, testosterone) and hormones produced by the adrenal glands (cortisol and aldosterone).
  • Vitamin D Synthesis: Cholesterol is essential for the production of vitamin D when the skin is exposed to sunlight.
  • Bile Acid Synthesis: Cholesterol is used to create bile acids in the liver, which are necessary for the digestion and absorption of dietary fats.
  • Neural Function: Cholesterol is crucial for the structure and function of nerve cells in the brain and throughout the nervous system.

The impacts of high cholesterol

Did you know that approximately 25% of all New Zealand adults need to manage their cholesterol for their heart health, as it is one of the highest risk factors for cardiovascular disease. 

As mentioned earlier, atherosclerosis is one possible outcome. This is “a condition in which plaque, a combination of cholesterol, fat, calcium, and other substances, builds up on the walls of arteries.” 

Another potential result of high cholesterol is coronary heart disease, “which occurs when the coronary arteries that supply the heart with oxygen-rich blood become narrowed or blocked,” explains Annelies. 

She added that heart attacks are a serious cause for concern with high blood pressure, as are strokes, hypertension, and an increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes. All of these are common health concerns in New Zealand.

Finally, high blood pressure can also increase the risk of complications during surgeries. 

How do you know if you have high cholesterol?

The risks of having high cholesterol are high, but one of the most challenging things about all of this is that there is no simple way to tell if you have high cholesterol. 

It is very much invisible. 

That is, unless you get a blood test. Your doctor can perform one, and you may be able to find a testing service (just a finger prick) at some pharmacies around New Zealand. If your reading is high at the pharmacy, you’ll be sent to a GP for a follow-up.  

How to lower your cholesterol

We know that having high cholesterol is bad. But how do you end up with high cholesterol in the first place, and how can you bring it down to a healthy level? 

Understanding the causes of high cholesterol

Firstly, there are a number of risk factors. For example, genetics play a big role, so if you have a family history of high cholesterol, you may have to make a point of keeping yours in check. Other factors include age, whether you are male or female, and other medical conditions. 

Beyond what you’re born with, it all comes down to your lifestyle. Without going into too much detail, foods that are high in refined sugars or saturated fats are in the bad camp. So is too much alcohol and smoking. 

Similarly, not enough exercise plays a role, as does carrying around too much body fat.  

But never fear, Annelies has some expert tips, as “there is lots you can do to help manage and reduce cholesterol.” 

Healthier diets 

“When it comes to high cholesterol, working on the liver and diet are the best places to start,” she says. 

To start, cut down on saturated fats and trans fats. “Trans-fats are artificial fats often found in processed foods, for example crackers and potato chips. Saturated fats are found in meat and dairy products. When eating meat it’s best to only eat lean cuts of meat such as chicken or venison or fish.”

Next, up your fibre intake. 

“Both soluble and insoluble fibre have been shown to help reduce cholesterol. Some excellent high fibre foods which may help lower cholesterol are oats, chia seeds, whole flaxseeds, brown rice, quinoa.”

You’ll also find fibre in fresh fruit and veg – Annelies recommends 6 servings per day. Don’t forget that frozen fruit and veg are just as good as the fresh stuff. 

She also suggests omega 3s for their ability to lower cholesterol. 

“Oily fish, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds and flaxseed oils are good sources of omega 3, so be sure to include lots of these in your diet. Supplementation with a good quality (non-rancid) fish oil can be very beneficial.”

Plenty of exercise 

A good diet and plenty of exercise is the best way to support your body, and can help to lower your cholesterol. Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of some health conditions and help to manage others. 

The Heart Foundation recommends small changes to fit more exercise into your day, such as taking the stairs instead of a lift, taking the dog out for more or longer walks (they’ll love you for it), and parking a little further away that you need to. 

The point is, any exercise is better than none, but aim for 30 minutes of activity per day. 

Quit smoking

One of the many ways you can bring down your cholesterol is by quitting smoking. From damaging your artery walls, making your LDL cholesterol stickier, and reducing the amount of HDL cholesterol in your blood, smoking can negatively impact your heart health in a variety of ways. In some cases, the build-up of plaque in your arteries can increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke. 

As it happens, having a healthy lifestyle such as being a non-smoker, can reduce the cost of life insurance premiums. Request a quote with New Zealand Seniors to see how your healthy choices could impact your policy.