Friend or Foe?

Many people mistakenly believe that cholesterol is bad for them and that the aim is to get rid of it completely. The opposite is true, cholesterol is found in every cell in the body and is especially important for the brain and nervous system. It helps to repair damaged arteries and it is the raw material for making adrenal and sex hormones and vitamin D.


It is important to realise that most of our cholesterol does not come from the food we eat but in fact our own livers manufacture about 80% of the cholesterol circulating in the body with smaller amounts also being made in other body cells.


Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) carry cholesterol from the liver, through the blood stream to deliver it to the body’s cells but if there is surplus to requirements and the cells are full, the excess can cause problems by building up on the artery walls (atherosclerotic plaque).


High-density lipoproteins (HDL) pick up excess cholesterol in the arteries and carry it back to the liver where it is converted into bile acids to be excreted. This is why LDL is seen as ‘bad’ cholesterol and HDL is seen as ‘good’ because it’s the HDL that clears excess or spent cholesterol helping remove it from the body.


Women naturally have more HDL than men as their female hormones release HDL but at menopause with oestrogen levels falling, HDL levels fall too so the picture changes and it becomes even more important for menopausal women to be mindful of eating and living in a way that promotes good cholesterol balance.


Let’s look at the bad news first – factors that raise bad cholesterol (LDL) levels and lower the good (HDL) but we’ll follow that with the good news – actions and foods that do the reverse; lower the bad (LDL) and encourage good cholesterol (HDL) levels.




  • Trans fat. Most trans fats are man-made processed oils and these hydrogenated trans fats can increase LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol. You find these fats in most processed, convenience and fast foods including shop-bought cakes, biscuits, pies, pizzas etc.


  • Wrong balance of fats such as a diet full of trans fats (above) but lacking in other forms of fats i.e. oily fish, nuts and seeds and olive oil.


  • Frying foods at high temperatures, especially if the food is burnt or blackened (think the great British BBQ) produces a lot of free radicals that damage cholesterol preventing it from being used in the body properly.


  • Sugary foods and drinks and high GL foods (carbohydrates that convert to sugar fast in the body) bring HDL cholesterol levels down and raise triglycerides in the blood. Triglycerides are a different type of fat in the blood and raised levels increase the risk of heart disease. So sugar is really bad news for your heart.


  • Chronic constipation cholesterol needs to be cleared from the body but this cannot happen efficiently if you have suffered from long-term constipation. You may have suffered from this for so long that it feels normal for you but actually what is classed as ‘normal’ is a daily bowel movement.


  • Obesity being overweight increases the bad (LDL) cholesterol in the blood stream.


  • Sedentary life style i.e. lack of regular exercise.


  • Long-term high stress may raise bad (LDL) cholesterol.



  • Monounsaturated fatty acids (omega 9) a type of fat found such foods as olives and extra virgin olive oil and avocado and its cold-pressed oil. In addition to studies showing that this fatty acid lowers blood cholesterol levels they also show that they may benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control, which can be especially helpful if you have type 2 diabetes.


  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids

  1. Omega 6 fatty acids found mostly in plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds and their cold-pressed oils. Studies have revealed as above that these fats improve cholesterol levels and benefit those with type 2 diabetes.

  2. Omega-3 fatty acids primarily found in oily fish such as pilchards, sardines, mackerel, salmon, trout and herring. Oily fish should be consumed roughly three times a week and if this is not possible for whatever reason then a good quality supplement should be considered as the body is unable to make omega 3, it must be eaten. Vegetarian/vegan sources of omega 3 are flaxseed and echium seed.


  • Antioxidant-rich colourful fruits and vegetables protect cholesterol from oxidation damage caused by free radicals. Include all the colours ranging from yellow, orange, red, purple and green plus every colour in between. Vegetables and salad and some fruit should make up 80% of your diet – picture large colourful salads, vegetables added to dishes plus side servings, green smoothies, vegetable juicing, vegetable soups etc. and you won’t go far wrong. Remember to add protein and the above fats to these healthful meals.


  • Raw garlic can help lower cholesterol so add at the end of cooking frequently.


  • Onions contain a phytonutrient, quercetin (also in apples but absorption from onions may be 32% more efficient). Quercetin may protect from heart disease, especially in women, by preventing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol.


  • Alfalfa sprouts help to normalise cholesterol levels. NOTE: sprouts are at the point of greatest vitality in its life cycle – vitamin and mineral content increase dramatically during sprouting process.


  • Soluble fibre found in foods such as whole oats (includes the bran), chai seeds, flax seeds and also in fruit and vegetables. Soluble fibre is essential for avoiding constipation and so helps the effective elimination of cholesterol from the body.


  • Vegetable juices especially beet, carrot and celery (helps flush fat from bile which lowers cholesterol).


  • Avoid sugar and high GL foods by eating the natural foods listed above.


  • Reduce stress levels by employing some effective stress management.




  • Return to a natural real food diet that our bodies are designed to work well on.

  • Include good quality protein in the form of organic meat, organ meats, fish (especially oily fish), eggs, pulses, lentils, nuts and seeds.

  • The bulk of the diet should be from vegetables, salad foods and a lesser amount of fruit.

  • The government’s recommendation of ‘5 a day’ should be a minimum, make sure you are achieving that every day and then, if you can, aim higher at 8-10 portions per day.

  • Keep fruit to just 1-2 portions a day.

  • These foods naturally contain plant sterols that help lower LDL and total cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.

  • Drastically reduce/avoid added sugar in all its forms. It is added in the most surprising places, many savoury products have added sugar. Even in foods that you know have added sugar, the amount can be startling: 4 tsp added to flavoured yoghurt and an unbelievable 25 tsp added to some major coffee shop drinks!

  • Read food labels – 4g sugar equals 1 tsp sugar.

  • Get moving. Regularly. Any exercise you like whether it be walking, cycling, dancing, the gym or a class but the aim is that it gets you out of breath with a raised heartbeat. Obviously check out this plan with your GP if this is a major departure from what you’re used to.


The fantastic news about learning to eat this way is that it has health benefits that reach far beyond balancing cholesterol levels. I would fully expect you to find your energy levels increase, your skin, hair, nails and sleep improve and mood swings to be banished. That has to be worth the changes!

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