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Are Your Cholesterol Levels Putting You at Risk?

30/10/2014 17:24 GMT | Updated 30/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Cardiovascular disease is the UK's number one killer with over 170,000 deaths each year resulting from heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure and diabetes.

High cholesterol should be a cause for concern because it usually has no obvious symptoms, but can lead to a heart attack or stroke without warning. The condition is common, it is estimated that up to two thirds of adults have raised cholesterol levels without realising it. Consuming the wrong type of foods and a lack of exercise often contribute to high cholesterol levels.

Yet, some people have high cholesterol despite following a healthy diet plan. This is because our genes play an important role in the natural variation of cholesterol levels, as well as how our bodies respond to cholesterol. In fact, surveys have shown that more than 1 in 500 people in the UK have very high cholesterol levels due to a genetic problem called 'familial hypercholesterolemia'. Those with familial hypercholesterolemia may be at risk of heart attacks early in their adult life, and a general practitioner may recommend medication.

As soon as middle age is reached, it is advised that people screen their cholesterol levels on a regular basis. If someone is in their 20s and has a family history of vascular diseases, they are also encouraged to get screened to be on the safe side. Warning signs that levels of cholesterol could be high include a diet high in saturated fats, being overweight, excessive intake of alcohol and smoking.

Thus, a change of lifestyle is important, with a central part of lowering risk coming down to diet. Much of the advice on how to lower cholesterol is vague or confusing, and often focuses on what people can't eat. But research has shown that the foods we should be eating are just as important as the ones we shouldn't. Adding the right foods to a diet can actually lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease and strokes. Among such types of foods are fibre-rich oats, beans and pulses, which can help stop cholesterol from being absorbed into the blood circulation.

How is this done?

Oats contain a soluble fibre which binds to bile (the secretion produced by the body that helps digest food). The bound up bile passes through the body and comes out as waste, instead of being reabsorbed for future use - so the liver has to produce more bile, taking it out of the bloodstream. Soluble fibre also has the capacity to stop some fats being absorbed by the body by creating a barrier between the fat and the gut wall. Finally, fibre can also be fermented by the 'friendly' bacteria in the gut, producing substances that reduce the ability of the liver to generate cholesterol.

As such, a type of fibre found predominantly in oats can be a valuable addition to a diet. Oats contain beta-glucan which bind to cholesterol in the gut and prevent its absorption. Studies have found that a daily dose of 3g of oat beta-glucan (approximately 90g of oats) reduces blood cholesterol by 5-10% in six weeks. If you want to incorporate it more into your diet you can easily find oat beta-glucan supplements at your local pharmacy.

Nuts, olive and rapeseed oils can also help prevent damage caused by 'bad' cholesterol (LDL).

How do they do it?

Nuts, seeds and oils contain unsaturated fats which may not actively lower LDL levels but can raise 'good' HDL levels. The more HDL cholesterol a person has the better. These foods also contain phenolic acid and vitamin E, which prevent LDL cholesterol from being oxidised and causes damage.

If your cholesterol screening consultation finds that you have high levels of cholesterol then there's no need to panic. Making lifestyle changes, such as exercising regularly, losing weight, stop smoking and incorporating these foods into a healthy diet, may achieve as much as a 20% reduction in LDL cholesterol. So go get your cholesterol tested today to ensure a healthy beating heart.