What is cholesterol?

What is cholesterol and its importance to your health?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that occurs naturally in all parts of the body. Your body needs some cholesterol to function properly.

It forms part of the outer membrane that surrounds every cell. It is used to insulate nerve fibers and make hormones. Without cholesterol, your body wouldn't work. It's vital to ensure the body's normal function.

Too much of it in the blood, however, increases the risk of coronary heart disease and disease of the arteries. But if you have too much in your blood, it can stick to the walls of your arteries. This is called plaque. Plaque can narrow your arteries or even block them.

Cholesterol and foods

One of the biggest misconceptions is foods, packed with cholesterol. In fact, very little is found in foods. It is mainly found in eggs, offal and shellfish. What's important is the type of fat in the food you choose, especially saturated fat. Once inside the body, the liver turns this fat into cholesterol.

Lipoprotein levels

Knowing your cholesterol level isn't enough. You also need to know about lipoproteins. These are special molecules that carry or transport it around the body.

There are three main types of lipoprotein:

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), often known as "bad cholesterol." This carries it from the liver to the cells. If supply exceeds demand, it can cause harmful build-up of this substance.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good cholesterol". This takes it away from the cells and back to the liver, where it's either broken down or excreted.

What is Cholesterol


The greatest danger is when someone has high levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and low levels of HDL cholesterol.

Healthy cholesterol levels

The average total cholesterol level in the UK is 5.5mmol/l for men and 5.6mmol/l for women, which is above a normal level. These levels need to be considered in the light of the person's overall risk of heart disease.

It's the balance of different types of lipoproteins, rather than the overall total cholesterol level, that matters.

This overall risk is determined by a combination of factors, like age, gender, family history of heart disease. Whether someone smokes, is overweight, has high blood pressure or diabetes.

The higher the risk of heart disease for a smoker with high blood pressure and diabetes), the greater the need to get the levels down.

But what constitutes a healthy cholesterol level is controversial, even among doctors.

Dietary & Health Information : What Is Cholesterol?

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and Department of Health cholesterol guidelines, are:

Total cholesterol - less than 5.0mmol/l LDL cholesterol - less than 3.0mmol/l

However, the Joint British Societies recommend different cholesterol limits for people who have, or are at risk of, coronary heart disease:

Total cholesterol - less than 4.0mmol/l LDL cholesterol - less than 2.0mmol/l

Low cholesterol

With anti cholesterol drugs now being sold without prescription at the pharmacy, the decision about how far to control cholesterol is being pushed into the consumer's hands.

One in 500 people has high cholesterol because of an inherited problem, called familial hyperlipidaemia.

Treatments for high cholesterol

The first steps in treating high cholesterol levels are:

Regular physical activity Healthy eating

This means cutting down on fats, especially a type called trans fats, and replacing saturated fats with unsaturated alternatives. There are also some foods that may help to lower its levels, particularly garlic, soya, oats, corn and selenium-enriched cereals.

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Truth About High Cholesterol