Being told by your doctor that you need to lower your cholesterol can be extremely worrying, but the good news is it can be a very treatable condition. If your cholesterol is slightly raised, your doctor will probably ask you to make a few lifestyle changes and to change your diet, but if it is very high, you may be prescribed medication to help too.
But just what foods can help?
Soluble fibre is water-soluble and is broken down by the bacteria in your large bowel (unlike insoluble fibre). It can help to control your overall cholesterol level and with it your risk of cardiovascular disease and can also soften your stools, especially if you're constipated, making bowel movements more comfortable.
Good sources of soluble fibre include;
• Fruits such as apples and bananas
• Root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots
• Oats, rye and barley
• Pulses and lentils
• Nuts and seeds.
Consumed in abundance in countries around the Mediterranean, monounsaturated fats are known to reduce cardiovascular risk by improving your cholesterol profile - especially through lowering the harmful LDL cholesterol level but also by increasing your level of healthy HDL cholesterol.
One of the best sources of monounsaturated fats is the humble olive - either in its natural fruit state or as olive oil - but other great sources include avocados as well as sunflower and safflower oils.
Soft margarine-like spreads based on olive or canola oil are also high in monounsaturated fats and are a healthy substitute for butter.
Like their mono-cousins, polyunsaturated fats will also reduce your cardiovascular risk by improving your cholesterol profile. They may also help to control your blood sugar levels, and lower your blood pressure as well as reduce your triglyceride level - a circulating blood fat that can accelerate the build-up of fatty plaques in your arteries.
Polyunsaturated fats are commonly found in plant-based oils, especially sunflower and soybean oils as well as nuts, seeds and oily fish.
Fish and omega-3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fats are a specific type of polyunsaturated fat and are particularly effective at reducing your risk of developing cardiovascular disease by improving your blood's cholesterol profile.
The best source of omega-3 fats is oily fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, herring, mackerel and pilchards.
Plant sources of omega-3 fats do exist - for example, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, soybean oil and walnuts - but neither these nor fish oil supplements appear to be processed in the body as beneficially as omega-3 fats from oily fish.
If you do decide to try a supplement, your doctor or pharmacist will be able to help ensure you're taking the right dose for your individual requirement.
A word of caution for pregnant women
Increasing fish oil consumption beyond two servings of oily fish per week or relying on fish oil supplementation is not appropriate during pregnancy due to the potential effects on the unborn baby of heavy metal levels in fish and high vitamin A levels found in some fish oil supplements.
Foods with added plant stanols or sterols
Stanols and sterols, naturally found in plants, are added to certain foods to block the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream.
These foods include some margarines, orange juices and yoghurts, and can help reduce LDL cholesterol by anywhere up to 15%.
Other dietary and lifestyle changes
While all of these changes can really help you to improve your cholesterol profile, other effective ways that you can take control include:
• Minimising your intake of saturated fats - commonly found in full-fat dairy products and fatty cuts of red and processed meats
• Keeping physically active - at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity - or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity - each week
• Not smoking - and avoiding secondhand smoke as much as possible
• Maintaining a healthy weight - a body mass index (BMI) of 25.0 or less has been associated by countless studies with improved health and wellbeing.