September is heart awareness month in South Africa. World Heart Day is recognised annually on the 29th of September. The purpose of heart awareness month, as explained by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa, is to raise awareness about cardiovascular disease (CVD), and to promote healthy living. CVD is one of the leading causes of death in the country, accounting for one in six deaths. Shockingly, 215 people die every day from heart attacks or strokes and one of the main contributing risk factors to watch out for is your cholesterol level. Discover more about the importance of healthy cholesterol levels with leading medical insurance broker, Bloom Financial Services and their medical partner, Momentum Health4Me, as we explain what cholesterol is, why high cholesterol is a heart health risk factor and how you can go about lowering your cholesterol with smart lifestyle changes and diet.
What is cholesterol and how is it linked to heart disease?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is found in your blood. It is produced by your liver and serves a particular purpose in the body. Cholesterol aids in the production of cell membranes, certain types of hormones and vitamin D. We obtain cholesterol from the food we eat, which is only found in animal and dairy products.
There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is also known as the “good cholesterol.” HDL helps protect your body against heart disease. The second type of cholesterol is low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad cholesterol.” If your LDL levels are too high, you run the risk of developing health complaints as high cholesterol is linked to heart disease because it causes a build-up of plaque in your arteries, which can harden and cause coronary disease, known as atherosclerosis. In addition to which, cholesterol can harden the arteries leading to your brain which puts you at risk for having a stroke. High cholesterol levels have also been linked to kidney disease, chronic vascular disease, Type II diabetes and high blood pressure.
What causes high cholesterol?
High cholesterol is often the result of a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle. Many people fail to monitor their intake of saturated fats and trans fats, which have high cholesterol levels. Other risk factors for developing high cholesterol levels include:
- Family history or genetic predisposition
- Being obese or overweight
- A lack of exercise
- Having kidney disease or diabetes
- Being a regular smoker
How can I lower my cholesterol?
The best way to lower your cholesterol naturally is by making mindful lifestyle changes. If you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you could consider embarking on some of these activities:
- Start an exercise routine and keep moving. Aim to spend at least half an hour per day doing some rigorous cardiovascular exercise, like walking or swimming. Exercise is also good for those with high blood pressure and general heart health maintenance.
- Watch your diet. Start a healthy eating plan that’s low in cholesterol. Speak to your doctor, nutritionist or dietician to get a recommended meal plan if you’re unsure about what you should or shouldn’t be eating. Ensure that your BMI is within the approved rating scale as excess body weight and obesity are contributing factors to high cholesterol.
- Quit smoking. Tobacco is addictive and the harmful effects of smoking are well documented by health organisations. Smoking can lower your HDL cholesterol and cause irreparable damage to your cardiovascular system.
Stick to a low cholesterol diet for best results
The best foods for lowering your cholesterol are those which are considered heart-healthy. These are a number of things to consider if you’re looking to follow a low cholesterol eating plan, some of which include:
- Eliminating trans fats from your diet. This food has been prepared with hydrogenated vegetable oil and is commonly found in margarine and baked goods, like confectionery products and deep-fried foods. Trans fats are unsaturated fats that raise your cholesterol level. Some countries have even taken steps to pass regulations against the use of trans fats in food preparation.
- Reducing or monitoring your intake of saturated fats. This type of fat is found primarily in red meat and full-cream dairy.
- Adding omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. This type of fat, found in fish like salmon, is healthy and doesn’t affect your LDL cholesterol. It also has other heart-healthy benefits, including the ability to reduce your blood pressure.
- Increasing your soluble fibre intake, because this will reduce the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream.
- Being mindful of how you prepare your food. Choose healthy cooking options, like grilling, boiling or roasting. Trim the fat off meat if possible and opt for fresh fruit and vegetables every day.
Some of the best foods for lowering your cholesterol include:
- Healthy, polyunsaturated fats like margarine, oily fish, nuts and seeds
- Healthy, monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocados
- Citrus fruits, like oranges
- Fortified foods, like cereals
- Beans, like lentils and kidney beans, that are high in fibre
- Nuts and seeds
Foods that can contribute to high cholesterol include:
- Deep-fried foods
- Fast-food takeaways
- Fatty meat and organ meat
- Highly processed food, like pastries, pies and cakes
- Butter and food made from palm oil
- Full-cream dairy
- Eggs, especially egg yolk
How to get your cholesterol level checked?
Your medical insurance plan on Momentum Heath4Me will cover an annual health screening test at a participating pharmacy clinic. A nurse will conduct a finger-prick blood test to check your cholesterol levels. This only takes about 10 minutes and will determine whether you are at risk for high cholesterol and need to make lifestyle changes. If your cholesterol levels are very high, you made need to be prescribed medication by your GP.
Medical insurance for day to day health insurance
Ensure you are covered for day to to day health insurance benefits with a comprehensive medical insurance plan from Momentum Health4Me. Gold, Silver and Bronze health insurance plans are available to suit your individual health needs and your budget.
Contact Bloom’s trained team of expert health insurance consultants to discuss your options.
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You understand and acknowledge that all users of the Bloom Financial Services website are responsible for their own medical care, treatment, and oversight. All content provided on the website, is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Neither is it intended to be a substitute for an independent professional medical opinion, judgement, diagnosis or treatment.