The Healthy Food Guide team believe that making small diet and lifestyle changes brings the best long-term gains. We look at the science behind the headlines and promote a balanced way of eating.

Did you know your doctor or nurse can conduct these important health checks? Ask about them at your next appointment…

Blood pressure

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, affects more than one in three people in the UK. Known as the ‘silent killer’, it doesn’t usually have symptoms, but it can increase risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and dementia.

‘When your blood pressure goes up, it means your heart must work harder and damage can occur in blood vessels,’ says HFG expert Dr Dawn Harper. ‘An ideal blood pressure is less than 140/90, and people who exercise regularly tend to have lower blood pressure than those who don’t.’

The NHS recommends we get checked at least every five years – and those at more risk, such as anyone who is overweight, obese, older or of African or Caribbean descent, should be checked more often. Your practice nurse or pharmacist can do the test for you.

Blood fats

‘There’s a direct relationship between elevated cholesterol levels and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease,’ says Dawn. That’s why you should have regular blood tests for cholesterol, triglycerides and the ratios between total cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol.

Blood cholesterol is measured in units called millimoles per litre of blood (mmol/L). ‘Your GP will take into account these measurements and other factors to assess your risk,’ adds Dawn. The government recommends the following levels for good heart health:

• Total cholesterol: 5mmol/L or less
• LDL cholesterol: 3mmol/L or less
• HDL cholesterol: Above 1mmol/L
• Total/HDL ratio: Below 4mmol/L
• Triglycerides: Less than 1.7mmol/L

Blood glucose

When a urine test detects glucose, a specialised blood test called HbA1c provides an indication of blood glucose control over two to three months. This is important to test for pre-diabetes or diabetes. An HbA1c reading of 6.5% (48mmol/mol) or above indicates type 2 diabetes. There’s no fixed level at which someone may be diagnosed with pre-diabetes, but a UK expert group says that an HbA1c level of 6–6.4% (42–47mmol/ mol) indicates a high risk of developing diabetes.

Other blood tests

Liver function This major organ deals with detoxification.
Homocysteine High levels of this amino acid can be linked with a higher risk of heart disease. A high level may be due to inadequate levels of vitamins B6 and B12, and folate. ‘If you have heart risk, we may check this further,’ says Dawn.
Thyroid function This is important for metabolism, generating heat, helping bowels move and remaining at a healthy weight.
Vitamin D This vitamin helps calcium get into the bones, maintaining their strength and reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
Iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid All are important for carrying oxygen to your tissues – vital for energy.
Progesterone An essential hormone for women’s optimal health and to conceive.
C-reactive protein (CRP) This is elevated if there is inflammation in the body, which can be related to heart disease.

Health checks

In the UK, all adults aged 40–74 get a free ‘midlife MOT’ health check on the NHS every five years. You’ll be asked about your health, lifestyle and family history. Your cholesterol, blood pressure and BMI will be checked and your diabetes risk assessed. ‘It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself,’ says Dawn.