High cholesterol is something we tend to be associated with older people – but in reality, that’s not always the case.
A greater number of younger people are being diagnosed with high cholesterol than you might think, according to new figures from the British Heart Foundation – 29% of 25-34-year-olds in England, and nearly half (45%) of 35-44-year-olds.
It is still most common in older age groups – with the percentage of people with raised cholesterol increasing to 59% for 55-64-year-olds. However, the figures indicate it’s important for adults of all ages to be aware of the issue.
There are two types of cholesterol: HDL cholesterol – often known as the ‘good’ type, because it carries cholesterol from the cells to the liver to be broken down. And LDL cholesterol – often known as the ‘bad’ type, because it can build up and potentially block arteries, resulting in serious health problems.
Cholesterol does have a function in our bodies. As the charity HEART UK points out, it is ‘used to make vitamin D and steroid hormones’, which help to keep our bones, teeth and muscles healthy. It also has a role in bile production, which helps us digest fats.
While we do need some LDL cholesterol in our blood, it’s when we have too much that problems can arise. According to the NHS, high cholesterol can run in families, although lifestyle and dietary factors can play a part too – and the best way to check your cholesterol levels is via a blood test.
Lynne Garton, a consultant dietitian for HEART UK, says: “Higher cholesterol levels are typically thought of as affecting older people, yet this growing body of evidence on increased cholesterol levels across young generations confirms it is a key health area that now needs to be tackled from a much younger age, to reduce the length of time the body is exposed to the effects of excess cholesterol.
“Making changes to the diet is a simple yet vital way to manage cholesterol levels for all ages.”
Registered nutritionist Anita Bean shares the following tips to look after your health and help keep cholesterol levels in check…
Replace some animal proteins in your diet
Cholesterol is found in animal foods, so Bean says: “Replacing some or all of the animal proteins that are high in saturated fat with healthful plant and other alternative proteins will help reduce your saturated fat intake and contribute to maintaining a normal cholesterol level as part of a varied balanced diet and lifestyle.”
She recommends looking to plant-based sources of protein, including tofu, pulses, nuts and seeds.
This isn’t just a good tip for managing your cholesterol levels but can help boost your health overall.
“To keep your heart healthy, your body needs adequate amounts of exercise,” says Bean, who cites the UK Chief Medical Officer’s physical activity guidelines. These recommend at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous intensity activity – both with at least two days a week of muscle-strengthening exercises.
This doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym. Dancing, gardening and going for walks all count too.
Eat more heart-healthy fats
“Eating too many foods high in saturated fat can increase cholesterol levels,” says Bean. “We should be eating fewer foods high in saturated fat and instead focus on consuming – in moderation – foods with heart-healthy unsaturated fats.
“Saturated fat is mainly found in fatty meat, full-fat dairy products, butter, lard, ghee, suet, palm and coconut oils and products made from them. Unsaturated fat is found in nuts, seeds, vegetable spreads and oils and many other plant-based foods.”
Get your five-a-day
“We should all be trying to consume at least five servings of fruit and vegetables each day,” says Bean. With the growing cost-of-living crisis meaning fresh fruit and veg might feel a bit more out of reach, Bean wants you to know: “Fresh, frozen, canned, dried – they all count.”
As an example of what your five-a-day might look like, she says: “An adult serving could be one medium sweet potato, three tablespoons of peas, one slice of mango, a bowl of salad, a tablespoon of dried fruit or a handful of strawberries.”
Seek outside help
If you’re struggling to make healthy choices or have any worries about your health, consult your GP for advice.
And if you do need a helping hand, Bean recommends trying out HEART UK’s Ultimate Cholesterol Lowering Plan – a three-step eating guide which has managing blood cholesterol levels and heart health at its core.
Garton calls it a “practical, manageable and achievable way of making simple changes to the diet, to reduce saturated fat intake and increase heart-healthy fats and plant proteins to help manage cholesterol levels”.