Getting your blood fats back on track

Our cholesterol readings can confuse many of us, and while some are aware we should look to "lower" it, the idea behind the readings may never truly sink in. If you've no idea what the numbers mean, this essential guide may help.

Why does my cholesterol level matter?

A high cholesterol level in your bloodstream is one of the biggest risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease, and since there are no obvious symptoms it's important to get your cholesterol checked occasionally. Speak to your doctor, who'll be able to advise you how often you should get it checked.

What do the measurements mean?

When you have your cholesterol measured, there are some key numbers you need to know about. If you have type 2 diabetes or have had a heart attack or stroke, your doctor will probably want to get your levels down to lower targets for total and LDL cholesterol than the ones we're talking about here

Total cholesterol - this is the overall concentration of cholesterol in your blood. Your total cholesterol level should ideally remain below 5.0 mmol/L

LDL - this is the main cause of cholesterol build-up in the artery walls and is therefore often referred to as "bad cholesterol". It is best to have an LDL level lower than 3.0 mmol/L. The higher your LDL cholesterol level, the higher your risk of cardiovascular disease

HDL - this is often referred to as "good cholesterol" as it transports excess cholesterol back to the liver to be broken down. HDL therefore helps to reduce or even reverse the build-up of cholesterol in the artery walls. An HDL level of at least 1.0 mmol/L is desirable. The higher your HDL level, the lower your chance of developing cardiovascular disease.

Your cholesterol assessment will look at the ratio between the total cholesterol level and the HDL level, which should be below 5.0. The simplest way to look at it is that your total cholesterol should never 'outweigh' your HDL by more than 5:1.

The best way to improve your cholesterol levels is to;

• Maintain a healthy weight - this usually means a BMI of between 20 and 25. You can calculate your BMI here: http://patient.info/health/bmi-calculator

Eat a healthy diet that is based on wholegrain complex carbohydrates with plenty of fruit and vegetables

• Minimise your intake of foods high in saturated fats - these can stimulate your liver to produce more cholesterol

• Eat at least two portions of fish a week - one of which should be oily fish (pregnant women should eat no more than two portions of oily fish per week)

• If you drink alcohol, make sure you stick within the healthy limits of no more than three to four units a day for men and two to three units a day for women. In addition, try to have one or two alcohol-free days a week, keeping your weekly intake to 21 units a week for men or 14 units a week for women

• If you smoke, try to stop - ask your GP for advice or visit: http://smokefree.nhs.uk

Exercise regularly - this is particularly good for increasing your HDL level