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A fatty, steroid substance in the cells of all animals which is vital in transporting fatty acids around the body in the blood.

It is made in the liver, and also provided in the diet by foods such as butter, eggs and meat; and is, in fact, a form of alcohol (sterol) and a natural part of our body's cells, especially those of the brain, kidneys, liver and spinal cord.

A certain level of cholesterol is essential for the normal functioning of our bodies. It makes hormones and breaks down animal fats found in butter, cream and fatty meat.

It was once thought that higher than normal levels of cholesterol caused fat deposits on the surface on arteries; but while this is partially true, it's vital to the well-being of the body. For example, it's needed to produce sex and steroid hormones, bile, synthesize vitamin D, form cell membranes and insulate nerves. The liver itself can produce up to 1g a day, when only about half of this amount comes from the average diet.

Cholesterol is now divided into two types LDL (low density lipoprotein - 'bad cholesterol') and HDL (high density lipoprotein - 'good cholesterol'). The former, in excess, causing fatty build - ups, which can cause heart attacks; the latter acting as a scavenger and protector, transporting fat and LDL cholesterol from the tissues to the liver for breakdown.

LDL levels are increased by the consumption or use of too much animal fat, the contraceptive pill, coffee, sugar (particularly when refined), sweets and nutritional deficiencies. Levels can be lowered by taking supplements of niacin, vitamin B6, C, E, chromium, magnesium, manganese, lecithin, pectin and DHEA.

It's thought that about one-third of adults in Britain have high cholesterol levels, although it's generally only people who suffer from a hereditary condition who should be concerned.

Beneficial foods for the maintenance of optimum cholesterol levels include a couple of glasses of wine a day, aubergines, garlic, green tea, nuts (except macadamia), oats, onions, peas, phytosterol-enriched foods (such as margarines, yoghurts or snack bars incorporating these 'functional' foods), porridge oats, pulses and soybeans. "Good" HDL forms can be increased by exercise. See'DHEA'

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