Cholesterol and the heart

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Basic Facts about Cholesterol

Cholesterol is essential for you. Every cell in your body contains cholesterol. It is produced by the body but can also be ingested through food. Being fat-soluble, it does not mix with blood, which is water-soluble. That’s why it is carried through your bloodstream by lipoproteins called HDL and LDL. Cholesterol is essential to your health, but too much of it can be harmful. Like water, cholesterol is absolutely essential for you, but too much of it can be harmful. Your body needs a small amount of cholesterol to build cell membranes, make hormones, produce vitamin D and carry out other important tasks. Every cell in your body contains cholesterol. Most of the cholesterol is produced by the body, but can also be taken in from food; mainly from meat, eggs and full-fat dairy products. Elevated cholesterol is a risk factor for heart diseases. Lowering your cholesterol levels now can help you to keep the life you love.Being fat-soluble, cholesterol does not mix with blood, which is water-soluble. That’s why it is carried through your bloodstream by lipoproteins called HDL and LDL. Low density lipoprotein or LDL is considered “bad” as it is involved in the atherosclerotic process, which may cause plaque build-up inside your arteries, leading to cardiovascular disease. High density lipoprotein or HDL is often called “good”, because it helps remove cholesterol from the arteries.

Could I have high Cholesterol?

Every second adult has elevated cholesterol Elevated cholesterol affects people of all ages and backgrounds in the industrialized countries – no matter whether you are young or old, overweight or underweight, or whether you exercise or not.

The only way to know if your cholesterol levels are elevated is to have it tested by your doctor or other healthcare professional. Elevated cholesterol usually has no symptoms so you will be able to follow your cholesterol levels only by having regular check-ups. If you are generally healthy, your recommended total cholesterol is below 5.0 mmol/l, your LDL is below 3.0, and your HDL is more than 1.0. If you have other risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease, the target levels for total and LDL cholesterol are even lower.Have your cholesterol checked regularly. You can’t feel elevated cholesterol: it has no signs or symptoms. The only way to know your cholesterol levels is through a blood test that measures the fats in your blood. Your doctor will interpret the results based on other risk factors, such as age, family history, smoking and high blood pressure, and advise you how to proceed.

Heart Health Disease Risk Factors

High cholesterol

High cholesterol is one of the main controllable risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke. The cholesterol carried by low density lipoprotein (LDL), i.e. the ‘bad’ type of cholesterol, collects in the walls of blood vessels and may cause blockages in the arteries, thus, increasing your risk of coronary heart disease. Lifestyle choices, such as the decision to eat a healthy diet that contains plenty of high-fibre vegetables and fruits, vegetable oils and spreads with a high content of unsaturated fats, as well as Benecol products with added Plant stanol ester, can help you keep your cholesterol levels low.

Alcohol consumption

A small amount of alcohol  –(no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women– ) may slightly lower your odds for coronary heart disease. If you are drinking more than this, the harm quickly exceeds the benefits. Drinking too much alcohol can, for example, raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of stroke, liver disease and cancer. Also keep in mind that if you don’t currently use alcohol, there are no health-related reasons to start doing so.

High blood pressure (hypertension)

High blood pressure is a condition in which the force of the blood against the artery walls is high enough to cause larger arteries to become more rigid and smaller vessels to become narrower. This restricts the body’s blood flow and can even lead to a heart attack. Lifestyle choices, which can help lower your blood pressure, include regular exercise, refraining from smoking and limiting the intake of salt and alcohol.


Living a stressful life impacts your heart health as well. In an acute stress reaction your body releases a hormone called adrenaline that causes your heart rate and blood pressure to rise. If this reaction becomes chronic, it puts a strain on your heart.

Excess weight and obesity

Excess weight puts a strain on your heart. It raises your blood pressure and blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as lowers the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol level in your blood. It also makes diabetes more likely to develop. Extra weight is especially harmful if it gathers around your mid-section. Healthy eating habits and regular exercise are key factors to maintaining healthy weight.


The older we get, the longer unhealthy habits and raised risk factors have time to cause damage to our health. Age does not need to be a significant risk factor if we manage to learn and maintain healthy habits from an early age. The earlier you make different lifestyle changes, the better–, but remember that it is never too late to start a new, healthier life!

Female hormones protect younger women from having rising cholesterol levels as easily as men of the same age. After menopause, women lose this protection, and their cholesterol levels usually rapidly meet the levels of men.

Physical inactivity

Lack of exercise has an effect on several markers of your health. It can, for instance, potentially lower the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol level in your blood. Any kind of exercise is beneficial for your health, and small changes in your daily routine can make a big difference. Even a brisk walk for 30 minutes a day can help to strengthen your heart muscle!

What about diabetes?

Diabetes is a major risk factor of cardiovascular disease. The risk of cardiovascular events is two to five times higher in people with diabetes, compared to non-diabetic individuals. Healthy eating habits, regular exercise and effective treatment of all risk factors for heart disease are especially important, if you have diabetes.


A smoker’s heart is under unnecessary strain all the time. Nicotine, which is a key component of tobacco products, increases your blood pressure and pulse. Smoke decreases the intake of oxygen so that your heart needs to beat quicker in order to supply enough oxygen to the body. Smoking impairs the functioning of blood vessels by several other mechanisms as well. The healthy thing to do is to quit, or at least significantly reduce smoking.


Many genes impact your risk of heart disease. If one of your parents has had heart problems such as angina pectoris, heart attack, or stroke, your risk of heart disease may be elevated. Talk to your doctor and follow your treatment plan carefully. Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a condition in which high cholesterol levels are caused by an inherited genetic factor.

If you have FH, your cholesterol is higher than normal already from birth. A healthy lifestyle is especially important in this case, as the risk of getting heart disease at an early age increases if the condition is left untreated. However, cholesterol-lowering medication is also needed to treat this medical condition.

Heart Health Dictionary


Also known as atherosclerotic plaque, or plaque. Cholesterol, fats and other substances are deposited in the inner artery wall, causing atherosclerosis. (See: Atherosclerosis)


Hardening and narrowing of the arteries resulting from growing atheromas. A progressive, silent condition that can gradually lead to the blockage of arteries and restricted blood flow. Atherosclerosis is the main underlying cause of cardiovascular diseases, including heart attack and stroke. It is brought on by a variety of factors, such as elevated blood cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, or smoking. (See: Cardiovascular disease, Heart attack, Stroke, High blood pressure, LDL cholesterol)


Benecol products contain Plant stanol ester and are proven to lower cholesterol by 7–10 % in 2–3 weeks. What’s more, cholesterol levels will remain at the lower level reached as long as Benecol products are used daily with a meal. (See: Plant stanol ester)

Blood pressure

The pressure in your main artery system. It is usually measured on your arm. (See: Systolic blood pressure, Diastolic blood pressure, mmHg)


Body mass index. Used as a guide to determine whether you are at a healthy weight, overweight, or underweight. (See: How can I calculate my body mass index)

Cardiovascular disease

Any disease affecting the heart or the vascular system. Cardiovascular diseases are the main causes of death and disability in most parts of the world. (See: Coronary heart disease, Heart attack and Stroke)


A waxy, fat-like substance found in your blood that is produced by your liver and obtained via food. Cholesterol travels through your bloodstream in small packages called lipoproteins (low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL)). Cholesterol is essential for your body’s good functioning, for instance in the production of new cells. However, too much cholesterol circulating in your blood increases your risk of coronary heart disease. Globally, one third of all heart disease cases are caused by high cholesterol. (See: LDL, HDL, Lipoprotein).

Coronary heart disease

Commonly referred to as heart disease. A disease where atheromas build up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Following this, one or more of these arteries can be narrowed or partially blocked. The blockage deprives the heart muscle of oxygen and may lead to chest pain or even a heart attack. (See: Heart attack)

Diastolic blood pressure

The second number in a blood pressure reading that indicates the pressure in the arteries when the heart rests between the beats. A healthy diastolic blood pressure number is below 80 mmHg. (See: High blood pressure, Systolic blood pressure)


Dyslipidemia means that there is an abnormal level – (either too high or too low– )  of one or more of the blood lipids (e.g. cholesterol). Thus, a person with dyslipidemia can have high blood total cholesterol, high blood LDL cholesterol, high blood triglyceride, low blood HDL cholesterol concentration, or some combination of these.

Familiar hypercholesterolemia

An genetic condition passed down from one generation to the next, characterized by high cholesterol levels.

HDL cholesterol

High-density lipoprotein, a particle that carries cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it is broken down and removed from the body. That’s why cholesterol measured as HDL cholesterol is also known also as ‘good cholesterol’. A healthy level of HDL cholesterol is above 40 mg/dl or 1 mmol/l (for men) and above 50 mg/dl or 1.3 mmol/l (for women).

Heart attack

Also called myocardial infarction, or MI. A potentially deadly condition that occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely. This happens because coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood can slowly narrow from a build-up of cholesterol (also referred to as an atheroma or atherosclerotic plaque) that is deposited in the artery wall. If an atheroma in a heart artery ruptures, a blood clot forms over the atheroma. This blood clot can block the blood flow through the heart muscle.

(See: Atheroma, Atherosclerosis)

High blood pressure (hypertension)

High blood pressure is a condition in which the force of the blood against the artery walls is high enough to cause the larger arteries to become rigid, and the smaller vessels to become narrower. This restricts blood flow so that blood needs to be pumped at a higher force, which can lead to a heart attack. (See: Diastolic blood pressure, Systolic blood pressure)

High cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia)

High cholesterol is a condition in which the concentration of cholesterol in your blood is higher than recommended. If you are generally healthy, your recommended total cholesterol is below 5.0 mmol/l or 200 mg/dl. If you have other risk factors, such high blood pressure, or if you smoke, the target level for your total cholesterol is below 4.5 mmol/l or 180 mg/dl.

How can I calculate my body mass index?

BMI = weight (kg) / height (m) x height (m)

e.g. 70 kg / (1.70m x 1.70m) = 24.2.

BMI < 18.5 Underweight

BMI = 18.5–25 Normal weight

BMI > 25 Overweight


See: High blood pressure

LDL cholesterol

Low-density lipoprotein is a particle that carries cholesterol to the arteries and to the other parts of the body. When the level of cholesterol carried by LDL (i.e. LDL cholesterol) is too high, it can cause cholesterol build-up and blockage in the arteries. That’s why LDL cholesterol is often referred as ‘bad cholesterol’.

An ideal level of LDL cholesterol is below 120 mg/dl or 3.0 mmol/l. For people at high risk of developing heart disease the target level is below 100 mg/dl or 2.5 mmol/l. An ideal level for people at very high risk of heart disease is below 70 mg/dl or 1.8 mmol/l. (See: Atherosclerosis)


Lipid lowering drug

A drug used to bring down your cholesterol levels.


Molecules transporting cholesterol and triglycerides through your bloodstream. Two of the most important varieties of lipoproteins are LDL and HDL. (See: LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol).


Milligrams per deciliter. A unit used to measure the level of cholesterol and other fats in the blood.


Millimeters of mercury. A unit used to measure blood pressure.


Millimoles per litre. A unit used to measure the level of cholesterol and other fats in the blood.

Plant stanol ester

Plant stanols are compounds, which are found naturally: e.g. in cereals, fruits and vegetables, mainly as their fatty acid esters, (i.e. Plant stanol ester). The levels obtained from a regular daily diet are too low to be effective in lowering blood cholesterol, which is why Plant stanol ester is added to Benecol foods and supplements. With 2 grams of plant stanols a day you get the optimal cholesterol lowering effect.

This recommended daily intake can be easily achieved by using Benecol foods and supplements.

A sufficient daily consumption of Benecol foods lowers your cholesterol by 7-10% as quickly as in 2-3 weeks. What’s more, the daily use of Benecol together with your daily meals keeps your cholesterol at a lower level also in the long-term.


Risk factor for coronary heart disease

A factor that increases your likelihood of developing coronary heart disease. The main risk factors for coronary heart disease include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, overweight, diabetes, smoking, physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, gender, age, and genes. Although you can’t change your age or genes, there’s a lot you can do to improve your risk factor levels with healthy lifestyle choices. Blood cholesterol level is one of the risk factors that is the most easy to change by choosing a heart-healthy diet.

Saturated fat

A type of fat found mainly in foods from animal sources, particularly butter and fatty dairy and meat products. Also some vegetable fats like coconut and palm oil contain large amounts of saturated fats. A diet high in saturated fat increases blood LDL cholesterol levels.


A stroke occurs when an artery that carries blood to the brain is either blocked by a clot or ruptures. In this situation, the brain cannot get the blood and oxygen it needs. A stroke can happen in different parts of the brain, resulting in different effects.

Systolic blood pressure

The first number in a blood pressure reading. When your heart beats, it contracts and pumps blood through the arteries to the rest of the body, which creates pressure on the arteries. A healthy systolic blood pressure is below 120 mmHg. (See: High blood pressure, Diastolic blood pressure)

Total cholesterol

The measure of all cholesterol in the blood, mainly LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. A desirable level of total cholesterol is below 200 mg/dl or 5.0 mmol/l.


A type of fat found in the blood. Most fats found in food and in the body are in the form of triglycerides, and they are an important source of energy. Elevated blood triglyceride levels* may increase the risk of coronary heart disease. This concerns especially people with a low blood HDL cholesterol level and elevated LDL cholesterol level, as well as diabetics.

*The target levels for blood triglycerides vary, but levels above 1.7 or 2.0 mmol/l (or 150 or 200 mg/dl) are usually considered elevated.

Unsaturated fat

Includes monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). These healthy types of fats should form most of the fats in your diet, and they can help lower the blood LDL cholesterol level. Unsaturated fats are found in a variety of foods, including vegetable oils (e.g. rapeseed oil and olive oil), soft margarines and spreads, mayonnaise, nuts and seeds, as well as fatty fish.

Heart Health FAQ

Cholesterol is essential to your health, but too much of it can be harmful. Elevated blood total and LDL (or bad) cholesterol levels are major risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary heart disease. The higher the blood total or LDL cholesterol level is, the higher is the risk of heart disease.

When your blood cholesterol level is elevated, you may gradually develop fatty deposits in the blood vessels that bring blood to the heart. These deposits can make it difficult for blood to flow through your arteries, thus leading to your heart not getting as much oxygen-rich blood as it needs to function properly.

This may cause pain or uncomfortable pressure in your chest (called angina or angina pectoris) and even a heart attack. Every second adult in the industrialized countries has elevated cholesterol levels. You can’t feel it, so the only way to know what your cholesterol level is through a blood test. The earlier you know your own cholesterol level, the better. Why? Because when you know your numbers, you can actively improve them, if needed. Lifelong low blood cholesterol levels are strong predictors of good heart health.

LDL cholesterol is the bad type of cholesterol found in your blood. LDL cholesterol transports cholesterol to the inner wall of the arteries, and an elevated blood LDL cholesterol level may lead to the accumulation of cholesterol in the artery walls, resulting in the development of atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the main underlying cause of cardiovascular diseases, such as a heart attack or stroke. Combining an active lifestyle with smart nutritional choices keeps your heart happy. Eating a heart-healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and spreads with a healthy fat composition are important factors in keeping your blood LDL cholesterol levels low. Moreover, although physical exercise doesn’t have a very big impact on your cholesterol levels, even a small increase in exercise does many other good things to your heart and helps it to stay healthy. Benecol® products contain Plant stanol ester, which has been proven to lower your blood cholesterol levels. Plant stanol ester works by partly blocking cholesterol absorption in the digestive tract. A sufficient daily consumption of Benecol products lowers your cholesterol by 7–10% as quickly as in 2–3 weeks. What’s more, daily use of Benecol together with your meals keeps your cholesterol level normal also in the long-term.