It's possible to lower the risk of high cholesterol by eating well and being physically active, so it’s tempting to think that only people who eat badly and don’t exercise can have this condition. But is that true?
Given all the health campaigns about how lifestyle factors put you at risk for high cholesterol, many people assume they’re risk-free if they‘re in a healthy weight range, don’t eat too unhealthily and exercise.
But since having high cholesterol (also referred to as hyperlipidaemia) doesn’t usually have physical symptoms, you can’t judge a person’s heart health by their appearance. Since 29 September marks Heart Health Day in South Africa, we’ve put together some myth busters so you can check if you’ve got your facts straight about high cholesterol.
1. All cholesterol is bad for you = False
Your body needs cholesterol to continue building healthy cells. The problem comes when you have too much of it. High cholesterol levels may cause you to develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels, which makes it difficult for enough blood to flow through your arteries. If your heart doesn’t get as much oxygen-rich blood as it needs, your risk of a heart attack increases. Less blood flow to your brain can also cause a stroke.
A full cholesterol test measures two kinds of cholesterol, namely low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL):
- LDL cholesterol, the so-called “bad” cholesterol, moves through the body where it’s used to repair cell membranes or make hormones
- HDL cholesterol, the so-called “good” cholesterol, moves through the liver, where it removes excess cholesterol from the tissues and disposes of it before it can do any damage.
2. You can’t have high cholesterol if you’re in shape and exercise = False
Not all cases of high cholesterol are due to poor diet and lack of exercise. You can have high cholesterol even if you’re not overweight. An underactive thyroid gland, medicine that you’re taking, chronic kidney failure or alcohol abuse can all cause high cholesterol. Some people have naturally high blood cholesterol levels, due to a rare hereditary condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia.
3. You’re safe if you avoid junk food and takeaways = False
What you eat influences your cholesterol. The most common cause of high cholesterol is eating too much saturated fat. But this doesn’t mean you’re safe if you avoid takeaways and obvious junk food like chips. People usually build up cholesterol slowly by eating a little too much fat every day.
You can build up high cholesterol slowly from the hard margarine on your bread, regularly adding a dash of butter to your cooking for taste, or even just eating the visible fat on meat. Check the labels of processed foods to see how much saturated fat and trans fat they contain.
4. You can lower your cholesterol levels by changing your lifestyle = Partially true
Exercise and diet can lower your cholesterol, depending on why you have high cholesterol. If your levels are dangerously high or your cholesterol is not caused by lifestyle factors in the first place, your doctor may prescribe medicine to bring your cholesterol down.
Lower your cholesterol yourself by:
- Being physically active
- Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats
- If you drink alcohol, doing so in moderation
- Choosing healthier cooking methods
- Adding more fish to your diet
- Adding more fibre and plant sterols to your diet
5. You only need a drop of blood for a cholesterol test = True
Your doctor or pharmacy probably has a machine that measures cholesterol. It only needs a biggish drop of blood. Ask your doctor ahead of time if you should avoid eating or drinking for up to 12 hours before the test. Since high cholesterol doesn’t usually have symptoms, a blood test is the only way to know your cholesterol levels.
So don’t leave it until it’s too late. Book a test at your GP or nearest clinic this spring to find out where you stand. Remember, true wellness starts with having an accurate idea of your current health status!
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Find out your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and your body mass index all in one sitting. The Vitality Health Check can help detect health problems like hypertension (high blood pressure) early. You can also earn up to 20 000 Vitality points depending on how many results are in the healthy range.
So tick off your annual health checks by booking one at a Vitality Wellness Centre, any pharmacy in the Vitality Wellness Network, a Discovery Wellness Day or at your nearest Discovery Store today!
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