What is cholesterol and how can you reduce it

Raj Kundhi

What is cholesterol and how can you reduce it?

17 February 2023

It is estimated that close to half of adults in the UK currently have cholesterol higher than the levels currently recommended by the government (that’s a total blood cholesterol level of less than 5mmol/L)1.

With high cholesterol being one of the known risk factors for developing heart disease and a risk factor for strokes,2 what can we do to help reduce it and keep it under control?

AXA Health's Senior Physiologist, Raj Kundhi explores what cholesterol is and share her tips for different foods than can help lower your levels and keep it in check.

What is cholesterol?

You may have come across the term ‘high cholesterol’ or know someone who has it, but cholesterol itself is “a type of blood fat which is made in the liver. It’s found in some foods too. We all need some cholesterol in our bodies just to keep us ticking over, but having too much can clog up your arteries and lead to health problems”.3

British Heart Foundation describe cholesterol as “a natural fatty substance in your blood”4 but there are factors that can increase it which means it then can become a health issue. Eating too much fatty food, lack of exercise, being overweight, as well as smoking or drinking, can all cause high cholesterol.

How can we reduce our cholesterol?

There are lifestyle changes we can make to keep our cholesterol levels in check and also help reduce it, if you’ve been tested and confirmed as having high cholesterol.

Exercising – aim to do at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of exercise a week. Those who are inactive run a higher risk of developing higher cholesterol levels than those who undertake regular exercise. Find an activity you enjoy and reap the benefits.

Read more: Become active your way

Smoking – try and give up smoking as this can “cause tar to build up in your arteries, making it easier for cholesterol to stick to your artery walls”.5

Avoid fatty foods – be cautious of foods that contain too much saturated fat, for example fatty meats like sausages and mince, as well as processed foods like cakes and biscuits. Reducing the amount we eat of these types of foods, helps our liver’s ability to remove cholesterol.

What food can help reduce our cholesterol?

Cholesterol-busting fruits

A number of fruits help lower your blood cholesterol. Some of them also have other health benefits for your heart too.

These include:

  • Apricots: Nutrients in apricots can help protect the heart as well as providing the cholesterol-lowering effects of fibre. The high beta-carotene content of apricots makes them important heart health foods. Beta-carotene helps protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation, which may help prevent furring up of the arteries.
  • Raspberries: These delicious summer berries are an excellent source of cholesterol-lowering fibre and the antioxidant nutrients manganese and vitamin C. They also contain vitamin B2, folate, niacin, magnesium, potassium and copper. In addition, they contain significant amounts of the anti-cancer phytochemical ellagic acid.
  • Avocados: These have a high content of mono-unsaturated fatty acids; they are also a good source of the antioxidant vitamins E and C, which can prevent the furring up of arteries, as well as potassium, which helps to control blood pressure, both of which are crucial to maintaining a healthy heart. Avocados make a great snack between meals as they do not interfere with blood sugar levels - but weight watchers beware, avocados are high in calories at 400 kcal each.

Vegetables to help lower cholesterol

Your vegetable patch can yield some cholesterol-lowering treats too.

  • Asparagus: This contains compounds called saponins, which have repeatedly been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Their intake has also been associated with improved blood pressure, improved blood sugar regulation and better control of blood cholesterol levels. Enjoy it lightly steamed (but don’t smother with butter!).
  • Fennel: Fennel is a herb used in cooking; it has an aniseed taste and is great for flavouring fish. An excellent source of vitamin C, it is also a very good source of dietary fibre, which can help to reduce elevated cholesterol levels, as well as other nutrients needed for heart health including potassium, manganese and folate. In addition, fennel is a good source of niacin, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, iron and copper.

The healthiest cooking oil

  • Olives/olive oils: Although available all year round, new olive oil is produced in the summer. In Italy, the arrival of new oil is celebrated by Le Stagioni dell’Olio or ‘the season of oil’. Olive oil has a high content of mono-unsaturated fatty acids which are known to lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels without lowering ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.

Cholesterol-lowering meat alternatives

Try and limit the amount of fatty red meat you eat and think about replacing it with oily fish or pulses.

Healthy choices include:

  • Mackerel: This oily fish is in season from June through to October, so the summer months are the perfect time to enjoy it fresh. Mackerel is the richest source of the long-chain omega-3 fats that are so important for good heart health. Studies have shown that these fats can lower LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood as well as help to make the blood thinner and less prone to clotting.
  • Lentils: Fresh sprouting lentils appear in the shops in summer. Lentils are a great source of cholesterol-lowering fibre. Not only do lentils help lower cholesterol, they are of special benefit in managing blood-sugar disorders since their high fibre content prevents blood sugar levels from rising rapidly after a meal. Lentils also provide good-to-excellent amounts of important minerals, B-vitamins and protein - all with virtually no fat. This makes them low in calories too, just 230 kcals for a whole cup of cooked lentils.

Recipes to try

We have lots of delicious recipes for every occasion, created by our in-house nutritionists, to help you eat well without any loss of enjoyment. Here's a selection of recipes for you to try:


  1. NHS Digital – Health Survey for England 2019 Adults’ health
  2. British Heart Foundation – High Cholesterol - Causes, Symptoms & Treatments
  3. Heart UK – What is cholesterol?
  4. British Heart Foundation - High Cholesterol - Symptoms, Causes & Levels
  5. British Heart Foundation - What causes high cholesterol?

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