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How eating the right fats can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke
Saturated fat directly raises your cholesterol levels and can cause weight gain. Too much cholesterol in your blood causes narrowing or furring in your arteries and increases your risk of heart attack or stroke.
Palm oils, and coconut oils, which are commonly used in African Caribbean cooking, area very high in saturated fat. Try using a healthy alternative such as monounsaturated fat like olive oil or rapeseed oil instead.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty material mainly made in the body from saturated fat in your diet. It plays a vital role in cell function throughout the body and is the building block of many essential steroid hormones. However, too much in the blood causes narrowing or furring in your arteries and increases your risk of heart attack or stroke. The risk is much greater if you have high blood pressure.
Cholesterol is carried on proteins known as lipoproteins.
There are two types of cholesterol in your body:
- LDL (low density lipoprotein) - this transports cholesterol from the liver to the cells
- HDL (high density lipoprotein) - this removes LDL cholesterol from your arteries and returns excess cholesterol back to the liver.
Why are cholesterol tests important?
High levels of blood cholesterol indicate a greater risk of coronary heart disease.
Cholesterol and heart disease
The cause of coronary heart disease is a narrowing of the arteries that supply the heart caused by a gradual accumulation of fatty material, a condition known as atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis (ateriosclerosis) occurs when LDL cholesterol is deposited on the walls of the coronary arteries. HDL removes this cholesterol from the circulation and protects against coronary heart disease.
The ratio of HCL to LDL is therefore very important and everyone should aim for a low level of LDL and a high level of HDL.
What should my cholesterol level be?
Your doctor will want to know your total cholesterol level as well as the ratio of bad cholesterol (LDL) to good cholesterol (HDL). You should be aiming for:
- Total cholesterol level of less than 5 mmol/l
- LDL cholesterol of less than 3 mmol/l (ideally 2 mmol/l)
- HDL cholesterol above 1 mmol/l
(mmol/l is an abbreviation for millimoles per litre of blood)
Causes of high cholesterol
The most common causes of high cholesterol are too much saturated fat in the diet, lack of physical exercise and also an inherited tendency to produce too much cholesterol called familial hypercholesterolaemia.
How do I cut down saturated fat?
Try eating less red meat. When you do eat red meat, cut off all the fat you can see and grill rather than fry it.
Try to eat only low-fat dairy products, e.g. fully skimmed milk or low-fat yoghurts.
Try to avoid all meat products such as sausages, pate and bacon.
Avoid coconut oil, palm oil and lard (or other animal fats).
Avoid baked foods that are high in fat such as pastry, croissants, manufactured cakes and biscuits.
Be careful with foods that are labelled as lower or reduced fat as these may still contain large amounts of fat.
Butter and margarine should be avoided. Many contain large amounts of salt and some margarines contain trans fatty acids. It is best to use olive oil or very low-fat spreads using soya or oils which contain no trans fatty acids.
Trans fatty acids are naturally present in small amounts in meat and dairy produce. In order to harden oils, some are "hydrogenated" (a manufacturing process) to produce trans fatty acids. These may be harmful as they increase LDL cholesterol and also lower HDL cholesterol. Avoid using foods or spreads that contain them; check the ingredients list for the word "hydrogenated" or look for products that state they contain no trans fats.
The two healthiest types of fat or oil that you can use are:
- Monounsaturated fat: This fat is found in olive and rapeseed oil as well as walnut oil and avocados. Olive or rapeseed oils are the best fats or oils to use, but remember all oils are very high in calories. For example, one tablespoon of olive oil has the same calories as four apples or two slices of bread.
- Polyunsaturated fats: This is found in sunflower, soya and cornflower oils, etc and can be used if rapeseed or olive oil is not available.