National Cholesterol Month runs throughout October. It is run by the charity Heart UK. We are inundated with conflicting information about what foods are good for us and which foods to avoid. The Heart UK cholesterol charity provides support, guidance and education to those who are affected or concerned about cholesterol.

Countries with low rates of cardiovascular problems include Japan and France because of their lifestyles. They are generally more active and eat foods that are from their locality. Even the French who consume a high saturated fat diet have much lower levels of heart problems compared to us Brits. It is estimated about 60% of people in the UK have high cholesterol[1] and increasing numbers are being prescribed statins. Statins have various side effects, including muscle weakness and pain, and you are on them for life. But could this type of fat be one of the most misunderstood substances we consume and naturally have in our body?

Foolish is the doctor who despises the knowledge acquired by the ancients
Hippocrates

Cholesterol is a waxy substance and naturally occurs in our bodies; notably in the liver and the blood. The cholesterol is transported around the body by attaching to proteins called lipoproteins through the bloodstream[2]. Cholesterol is basically split into 3 different categories. The good is known as High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL), the bad is Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) and the ugly is Triglyceride.

What is untold in the cholesterol story is that it is a necessary fat for certain bodily functions. Cholesterol is needed for the creation of hormones, vitamin D and enzymes necessary for digestion[3]. The body needs all 3 types of cholesterol in managed quantities. Bad cholesterol management in the body is not only to do with diet. Diabetes, stress and physical inactivity all affect how cholesterol is sorted in the body.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

All 3 of these types of fat complete necessary tasks within in the body. However, our diets and lifestyles are making these lipids dangerous. Understanding what these terms mean and what we can do about it is the first step to becoming aware of our bodies needs.

Good: HDL

High-density lipoprotein is good because it helps to remove other forms of cholesterol from the bloodstream[3]. HDL ‘picks up’ excess cholesterol in the blood and transports it back to the liver to be broken down and removed from the body. The liver converts the excess cholesterol into bile salts, transfers it into bile and is removed from the body in the faeces[4]. The liver is the ultimate detoxer in the body and is the largest gland in the body[5].

Bad: LDL

Low-density lipoprotein, over time, can build up within the walls of the blood vessels. As cholesterol is a waxy substance, the blood vessels become hardened and narrowed[6]. This can end in clots, if not addressed, and cause heart attacks and strokes. LDL’s function is to deliver cholesterol to cells in the body[4]. Cholesterol is needed to produce cell membranes, hormones and bile acids.

Ugly: Triglycerides

Triglycerides are a type of fat in the blood. Excess calories that are consumed are converted into triglycerides and stored in fat cells[5]. The good news is that our hormones release triglycerides for energy in between meals. The bad news is that we generally snack and consume more calories than we burn throughout the day. This can lead to what’s known as hypertriglyceridemia[5] which can dramatically increase the risk of heart disease. High levels of triglycerides in the body go hand-in-hand with high levels of LDL.

Best Foods to Lower LDL and maintain HDL

  • Vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Turmeric
  • Garlic
  • Beans and Legumes
  • Green Tea
  • Wholegrains
  • Healthy Fats

Keep Cholesterol Levels Balanced with a Locally-Focused Diet

The modern Western diet harms our bodies. Even if we do think we eat healthily, fresh foods aren’t always in season and when eaten out of season can have only a 1/3 of its original mineral content[7]. We’ve become accustomed to a diet filled with modified and processed foods. Health concerns and ailments don’t necessarily have to end with a lifetime consumption of pills with side effects.  Being responsible for your own health is the best thing you can do for yourself.

The Greatest Medicine of All is Teaching People How Not to Need it.
Hippocrates

A substantial amount of our health problems are a result of modern agriculture and food production if we learn to focus on the food that is around us we are helping not only our health but our community, our local economy and supporting local farmers and producers who use traditional or organic farm practices.

It is the best time of year to start a healthy eating plan. Foods that thrive in the British climate are ready and waiting to be harvested and as eating locally has become easier, it becomes more popular and important to us. It is suggested that a diet filled with whole grains, grass-fed, free-range meat and dairy products alongside fruit, vegetable and nuts can have profound effects on your body.

Local Shopping Basket:

Fill your basket with locally-sourced goods known for their cholesterol-fighting properties.

Oats

Oats are one of the top foods associated with heart health and lowering cholesterol levels. Oats contain beta-glucan. This soluble fibre slows down digestion and allows blood sugar to remain stable. Beta glucan is indigestible so when it travels through the digestive tract is can remove cholesterol as it leaves the body[8].

You can source locally-milled oats from Heatherslaw Corn Mill. They supply many local deli-style and farm shops. You can also get organic oats from Eden Valley Oats in Kelso.

Green Tea

All tea is good for you, but especially green tea. Green tea drinkers reputably have a lower risk at developing cardiovascular problems. If you don’t enjoy green tea, black tea is just as good at lowering LDL levels. The health benefits are often disputed and seen as anecdotal but no one can deny the calming enjoyment one relishes while making and drinking tea.

For a caffeine-free alternative try Rooibos tea.

Tea can only be grown along the equator so unfortunately, it isn’t a typical British product. However, Northumberland is home to a few tea merchants who source tea through the Ethical Tea Partnership. Coffee and Kin offer Sencha Green tea pyramid bags available on subscription. Bari Tea offers loose leaf tea. There are several green blends to try including organic Sencha Fuji, Green Ginger and Gyokuro green tea.

A bari blend: Sencha Cherry Rose Green Tea loose leaf tea
A bari blend: Sencha Cherry Rose Green Tea.

Beetroot

Purple and blue-hued foods are purported to be essential for heart health. The polyphenols in purple foods help to reduce inflammation in the body. These intense coloured foods also contain resveratrol; a phenol that is responsible for breaking down fatty deposits.

Beetroot was brought over by the Romans. Beetroot is rich in soluble fibre and is cholesterol-free.  You can get local beetroot from vegetable box schemes such as G & S Organics and greengrocers.

Other purple and blue-hued foods with LDL lowering potential include:

Brambles & Blackcurrants

Brambles, or blackberries, are nearing the end of their peak so its best to get them as soon as you can. These dark berries are just as good, if not more so than its more exotic blue cousins, the blueberry.  Consuming dark berries, which are rich in flavonoids enhance the function of blood vessels and blood stickiness[9]. Berries are also high in fibre which can help reduce cholesterol[10]. Try bramble and blackcurrant picking at Brockbushes Fruit Farm near Corbridge or Border Berries in Kelso.

Red Onion

When eaten raw, onions contain no cholesterol but can also lower the production of LDL[11]. Be careful when peeling onions, over peel and you can lose a significant amount of powerful flavonoids. You can get locally grown onions in veg boxes, farm shops and local deli shops. Try some organic onions from Hexhamshire Organics or from Down to Earth, a greengrocer in Selkirk.

Healthy Fats

Healthy fats range from olive oil to eggs to grass-fed beef and wild-caught fish. Northumberland and Scottish Borders can boast many locally-based businesses and farmers who provide these highly sought after foods.

We are lucky enough to boast many local farmers who produce grass-fed beef, such as Scottish Borders farms Hardiesmill and Peelham Farm. For wild-caught fish, try wild salmon or sea trout from River Tweed Wild Salmon Co in Berwick upon Tweed. The company has been Slow Food certified and part of The Ark of Taste. Salmon can only be caught by ‘net and coble’ on the river Tweed as part of the law passed to protect the salmon stock. You can also get fresh salmon from Swallow Fish Ltd in Seahouses or oat-smoked salmon from L Robson & Sons, famous for their Craster Kippers, in Craster.

Eating salmon can improve the 'good' HDL cholesterol in the body.
Eating salmon can improve the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol in the body.

Eggs are an excellent source of protein and are naturally low in saturated fat. Although eggs contain cholesterol, this has little impact on blood cholesterol[12], especially when compared to other everyday foods such as white bread, chocolate bars and cured meats. You can get fresh, organic and free-range eggs from Border Eggs available from many local outlets across Northumberland and Scottish Borders.

Organic, free-range eggs are proven to contain lower amounts of cholesterol than caged eggs.
Organic, free-range eggs are proven to contain lower amounts of cholesterol than caged eggs.

Rapeseed oil has been in the press a lot lately for both good and bad reasons. But no matter what side you are on, the facts cannot be disputed. Rapeseed oil crops are not GMO, unlike many parts of the world. Rapeseed oil has a much higher smoke point than olive oil, which means that the good fats are less likely to convert to bad fats when cooking at high temperatures. Rapeseed oil also has high levels of polyunsaturated fat, 3.2g per tbsp, and is a source of plant sterols this helps to lower LDL cholesterol[13].

You can source local, cold-pressed rapeseed oil from Baste and Bray based near Ashington. Also, Borderfields, which is a cooperative of British farms, started originally in the Scottish Borders offer cold-pressed rapeseed oil in a variety of flavours.

Too Much of a Good Thing

You are what you eat, says the old adage. Cholesterol is something we can’t avoid; our bodies make it and foods contain it. It all comes down to how much you’re eating of what and when. National Cholesterol Month is raising awareness of high cholesterol conditions and supporting those who are suffering from problems arising from this.

The point of this article is to show that we can all do something about this. As the months and years go on, people are beginning to turn their backs on the mass-produced and additive-ridden foods lining shops and public spaces. Our voices have been heard and there are more opportunities for us to shop locally and discover a healthier way of eating as our predecessors did, albeit without the hard graft!

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Disclaimer: If you are taking medication, consult with your Dr before taking any action to reduce bad fats in the body.