National Cholesterol Month

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a blood fat, made in the liver which plays a vital role in how all our cells work. It’s needed for digestion, to make vitamin D, and to make hormones which keep your bones strong. 

Having high cholesterol 

We all need some cholesterol in our blood, but too much cholesterol can lead to diseases of the heart and blood vessels. High cholesterol can be caused by lifestyle but can also be inherited, and most people don’t know they have it. Anyone can have high cholesterol, even if you’re young, slim and otherwise healthy. You can’t feel it, so the only way to determine your cholesterol level is to get a test.

People in the age group of 15-30 years are now increasingly being diagnosed with high cholesterol levels which is putting their heart health at risk as high cholesterol will lead to the build-up of plaque in the arteries inviting a condition called atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries). 

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What is a healthy cholesterol level?


Healthy levels (mmol/L)

Total (serum) cholesterol / TC

Overall amount of cholesterol in your blood, including both good and bad cholesterol

5 or below  

HDL (good cholesterol) 

Helps clear the cholesterol out of your arteries – this makes you less likely to have heart problems or a stroke

above 1.0 for men

above 1.2 for women 

LDL (bad cholesterol) 

Can block your arteries – this makes you more likely to have heart problems or a stroke

3 or below  

Total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol ratio (TC:HDL) 

Level of good cholesterol (HDL) in your blood compared to your overall cholesterol level (TC) 

6 or below 

Triglycerides (TG)

Another type of blood fat like bad cholesterol, mainly from the foods we eat 

Fasting triglyceride: 1.7 or below 

Non-fasting triglyceride: 2.3 or below 


Lowering your cholesterol with diet

A few small changes to your diet can make a big difference to your cholesterol level.


  1. Red Meat 

Red meat and associated products tend to be high in saturated fats. You don't have to avoid them altogether but watch your portions and have them less frequently. Experiment with healthier proteins by fully or part replacing meat in recipes with beans, lentils, nuts (e.g., unsalted almonds, cashews, and hazelnuts) and vegetables, sustainably sourced white or oil-rich fish (mackerel, sardines, salmon), soya or Quorn. Choose leaner cuts and remove the skin from poultry or all visible fats from meat before cooking. Go meat-free a couple of days a week.


  1. Processed Meats 

Sausages, burgers, pate, salami, chorizo, hams, meat pies and pasties are often very high in saturated fats and salt so try to avoid them. This also includes plant-based and vegan processed meat alternatives and dishes - check the front of the pack and AVOID RED and AMBER for saturated fat and salt.

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  1. Dairy and Plant-Based Alternatives

Choose lower-fat varieties of dairy or try fortified (calcium, iodine and vitamin B12) plant-based drinks and alternatives to yoghurt. Avoid coconut drinks and yoghurt alternatives as these are very high in saturated fat.


  1. Cheese

Cheese, even lower fat varieties, are rich in saturated fat. Ideally, choose lower-fat cheeses but still reduce portions and have them less frequently. A single serving of standard and reduced-fat cheeses should be no more than 30g or two thumb-widths. Grating cheese makes it go a long way! Very low-fat hard cheeses or quark and cottage cheese provide very little saturated fat and can be eaten more freely. These cheeses (both Cheddar & creamy style) must be labelled as 'LOW FAT' or 'VERY LOW FAT' (not lower/reduced fat) and check the label that the fat content is no more than 3g per 100g or 3%.

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  1. Unsaturated Oils & Spreads

Replacing saturated fats in the diet with unsaturated fats is a powerful way to lower cholesterol levels. All fats, including oils and spreads, provide a lot of calories so use sparingly – no more than 3 tbsp in any one day. Try to have no more than 1 serving (1 tbsp or 3 tsp) daily of animal or coconut/palm fat. Try cooking methods that do not require added fats e.g., grilling, poaching and roasting bags.


  1. Pulses

Eating plenty of fibre like that in pulses helps lower your risk of heart disease. All types of pulses count including canned varieties e.g., baked beans, lentils, chickpeas, garden peas, broad beans, black-eyed beans, kidney beans etc. Use to part or fully replace meat in your recipes. Try going meat-free twice a week.


  1. Wholegrains

Too many refined carbs e.g., white bread, white rice and pasta have been associated with higher lipids and a greater risk of cardiovascular risk. Switching to whole grain varieties will help with heart health outcomes and add more fibre to your diet.


  1. Takeaways, Fast Foods and Ready Meals

Takeaways and fast foods are often rich in saturated fats and salt. Best to reduce the frequency and choose 'healthier' options e.g., plain Margherita pizzas, tomato-based or dry curries, tomato-based pasta dishes (without cream or cheese), grilled kebabs, and sushi. Sandwiches: choose without added cheese and mayo. Front of pack: choose GREEN for saturated fat & salt.

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  • A healthy balanced diet, being physically active, stopping smoking and keeping a healthy weight and shape can all help to lower your cholesterol.
  • Replace foods containing saturated fats with those that contain polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. You can do this by choosing healthy fats such as olive or rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds, fish and avocado.
  • Increase your fibre intake by choosing vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds every day.

Remember small changes can make a big difference to your cholesterol levels and heart health through your habit, diet and exercise regime - decide which two changes you would like to tackle first. Make one or two changes at a time, and only introduce further improvements once you feel ready to do so.


For cholesterol-healthy recipes try our Coronation Chickpeas on Baked Sweet Potatoes, Green Veg Savoury Porridge, Green Spinach Crepes or Courgette and Quinoa Fritters!

Written by Abigail Attenborough (ANutr)

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