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The Cholesterol & Vascular Disease Link

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Heart attacks and strokes (vascular disease) are major causes of disability and death in Australian adults. Having a high cholesterol is a modifiable risk factor for vascular disease.

Cholesterol, or lipids as we should call them, and their treatment is controversial; however they are natural substances that can build up in the body, contributing to atherosclerosis and narrowing of blood vessels which is a process with no symptoms until it is severe and a catastrophic vascular event could occur. The chances having high lipids, thus potentially suffering vascular disease, can be reduced with healthy lifestyle decisions, making it one of the modifiable risk factors.

Lipids themselves are fatty substances, synthesized by our livers as an energy store and source, so are essential for survival. Animals also produce lipids, thus saturated animal fats in foods such as dairy, many cooking oils, deep-fried food, fatty meats can be an extra source of lipids and contribute to disease. There are some saturated fats in vegetables and legumes, eg some nuts and oils, but most of these foods contain safer mono- or polyunsaturated fats. Another source of unhealthy lipids are  the ‘trans fats’ which are artificially manufactured fats and go into processed foods such as doughnuts, cakes, cookies, frozen pizza and some margarines.

Lipids can be tested via a fasting blood test; several different substances are tested for. Trigylcerides can contribute to atherosclerosis and be raised due to obesity and having an unhealthy diet, including high energy foods, carbohydrates and sugars such as energy drinks, alcoholic beverages and tobacco smoking. Cholesterol is a similar product but confusingly there is good and bad types. HDL-cholesterol is the good type and is promoted by exercise and eating ‘healthy’ fats (eg oily fish such as tuna, mackerel, salmon), and reduces dangerous atherosclerosis. LDL-cholesterol, being the ‘bad’ variety of cholesterol, works in the opposite way, contributing to vascular blockages and disease.

So what is the overall message then? In order to reduce the burden of vascular disease from lipids we should aspire to have as low an LDL-cholesterol and triglyceride as possible and as high an HDL-cholesterol as possible. This can be achieved through maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise, limiting alcohol, sugar and carbohydrate intake but also eating a lower saturated fat diet such as white meat, low fat dairy, eating more vegetables and fruit, limited processed, fried and baked food and using unsaturated vegetable oils such as olive and sunflower.

In spite of this some people find it hard to reduce their lipid levels by diet alone, maybe as they constitutionally produce a lot, and may need to take cholesterol lowering medications to avoid coming to harm.

More information can be found here on Heart Foundation site.


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