What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance in our blood, which is produced naturally in the liver. Everyone has cholesterol. We need it to stay healthy because every cell in our body uses it. Some of this cholesterol comes from the food that we eat.

There are two main types of cholesterol – one is ‘good’ and the other is ‘bad’. Having too much ‘bad’ cholesterol can cause problems. It can clog up the arteries carrying blood around your body. This can cause heart and circulatory diseases like a heart attack or stroke.

Cholesterol is carried around the body through our bloodstream by proteins (the building blocks of our cells). When cholesterol and proteins are combined, they are called lipoproteins. 

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol


There are several types of lipoproteins, but they can generally be divided into two main types:

Non-high density lipoproteins (non-HDL) delivers cholesterol from the liver to cells around your body. This is known as ‘bad’ cholesterol because if you have too much it can stick to the walls of your blood vessels and can stay there. This can clog up the blood vessels, causing them to become stiff and narrow which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are known as ‘good’ cholesterol because it gets rid of ‘bad’ cholesterol from your blood vessels. It takes the cholesterol that you don’t need back to the liver where it is broken down to be passed out of your body, thereby reducing your risk of heart and circulatory disease.

What does a high cholesterol level mean? 

When people talk about keeping their cholesterol down, they usually mean their total cholesterol level. This is worked out by measuring your ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, your ‘bad’ non-HDL cholesterol and your triglyceride level. 

If you have been told you have a high total cholesterol level, you have too much ‘bad’ cholesterol in your bloodstream which means you are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. But a high level of ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol can help keep that ‘bad’ (non-HDL) cholesterol in check.  

There is no specific target cholesterol level because your doctor is looking at your overall risk of developing heart and circulatory disease including whether you smoke or have high blood pressure. 

However the NHS website quotes the following:

Your cholesterol result is broken down into:

  • Your total cholesterol. Healthy adults should have a total cholesterol of 5 or less.
  • Your LDL cholesterol score (often called “bad cholesterol”). This is the type of cholesterol that blocks the arteries. Healthy adults should have an LDL cholesterol score of 3 or less.

Your healthcare professional may also calculate your cholesterol ratio. A ratio score of 4 or more may indicate heart or circulation problems.

What causes high cholesterol?

Anyone can get high cholesterol, and it can be caused by many different things. Some things you can control like lifestyle habits, others you can’t. As long as you take care of the things you can control, you’ll help lower your risk of heart and circulatory disease.

Things that cause high cholesterol you can control

  • eating a lot of saturated fat
  • smoking
  • not being active enough
  • having too much body fat, especially around your middle.

Things that cause high cholesterol you can’t control

  • getting older
  • if you are male or female
  • ethnic background
  • Familial Hypercholesterolaemia (FH) and other inherited diseases.

What can I do to lower my cholesterol?

Making some simple lifestyle changes may be all that you need to bring your cholesterol down to a good level. 

Eat a healthy balanced diet


Eating more fruit, vegetables and wholegrain is better than eating foods high in saturated fat and sugar. Saturated fat and trans fats can increase your total cholesterol level and your non-HDL cholesterol (bad) level which increases the risk of fatty deposits building up in your arteries.

Saturated fat is mainly found in  

  • butter
  • lard
  • fatty meats
  • cheese
  • cakes
  • biscuits
  • palm and coconut oil.

Trans fats are usually found in processed foods like biscuits, cakes, fast food and some margarines and spreads.  You can replace these fats with the healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as

  • olive, rapeseed or sunflower oils and spreads
  • vegetable oil spreads
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • oily fish.

Choose more wholegrains and  foods that are high in soluble fibre as this can help lower cholesterol such as

  • oats
  • beans
  • pulses
  • lentils
  • nuts
  • fruits and vegetables.

Be active for at least 30 minutes a day


Regular physical activity strengthens your heart and reduces your ‘bad’ cholesterol. Being active helps increase your ‘good’ HDL cholesterol while helping your body move the ‘bad’ non-HDL cholesterol to your liver where it will be disposed of.

You don’t have to join a gym or take up a sport, just look for chances to move more every day. Staying active is great way to keep your heart healthy.

Stop smoking

Quitting smoking can help to lower your cholesterol and improve your heart health.  Smoking stops ‘good’ cholesterol doing its job of getting rid of your ‘bad’ cholesterol. Speak to your doctor about how to stop smoking as soon as you can.  Not smoking will really help you avoid heart disease.  

If you are concerned that your cholesterol level may be high make an appointment with your Doctor or Practice Nurse to get tested.  Its a quick and simple test!

If you want to start becoming more active and lead a healthier lifestyle, check out our website http://www.uniqueresults.co.uk and read all about our Foundations Programme.

Yours in health,


*Information sourced from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) website