Cholesterol. What’s the Big, Fat Deal?
It may surprise you to know that cholesterol itself isn’t bad. In fact, cholesterol is just one of the many substances created and used by our bodies to keep us healthy. Some of the cholesterol we need is produced naturally (and can be affected by your family health history), while some of it comes from the food we eat.
There are two types of cholesterol: “good” and “bad.” It’s important to understand the difference, and to know the levels of “good” and “bad” cholesterol in your blood. Too much of one type — or not enough of another — can put you at risk for coronary heart disease, heart attack or stroke.
Cholesterol comes from two sources: your body and food. Your liver and other cells in your body make about 75 percent of blood cholesterol. The other 25 percent comes from the foods you eat. Cholesterol is only found in animal products.
There are three main types of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol:
Cholesterol is carried in the blood by molecules called lipoproteins. A lipoprotein is any complex or compound containing both lipid (fat) and protein. The three main types are:
• LDL (low density lipoprotein) – people often refer to it as bad cholesterol. LDL carries cholesterol from the liver to cells. If too much is carried, too much for the cells to use, there can be a harmful buildup of LDL. This lipoprotein can increase the risk of arterial disease if levels rise too high. Most human blood contains approximately 70% LDL – this may vary, depending on the person.
• HDL (high density lipoprotein) – people often refer to it as good cholesterol. Experts say HDL prevents arterial disease. HDL does the opposite of LDL – HDL takes the cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver. In the liver it is either broken down or expelled from the body as waste.
• Triglycerides – these are the chemical forms in which most fat exists in the body, as well as in food. They are present in blood plasma. Triglycerides, in association with cholesterol, form the plasma lipids (blood fat). Triglycerides in plasma originate either from fats in our food, or are made in the body from other energy sources, such as carbohydrates. Calories we consume but are not used immediately by our tissues are converted into triglycerides and stored in fat cells. When your body needs energy and there is no food as an energy source, triglycerides will be released from fat cells and used as energy – hormones control this process.
Lifestyle Choices that affect cholesterol levels:
• Nutrition – although some foods contain cholesterol, such as eggs, and some seafood, dietary cholesterol does not have much of an impact in human blood cholesterol levels. However, saturated fats do! Foods high in saturated fats include red meat, some pies, sausages, hard cheese, lard, pastry, cakes, most biscuits, and cream (there are many more).
• Sedentary lifestyle – people who do not exercise and spend most of their time sitting/lying down have significantly higher levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and lower levels of HDL (good cholesterol).
• Bodyweight – people who are overweight/obese are much more likely to have higher LDL levels and lower HDL levels, compared to people who are of normal weight.
• Smoking – this can have quite a considerable effect on LDL levels.
• Alcohol – people who consume too much alcohol regularly, generally have much higher levels of LDL and much lower levels of HDL, compared to people who abstain or those who drink in moderation.
Lifestyle choices that will lower cholesterol levels:
Most people, especially those whose only risk factor has been lifestyle, can generally get their cholesterol and triglyceride levels back to normal by:
• Doing plenty of exercise (check with your doctor)
• Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, oats, good quality fats
• Avoiding foods with saturated fats
• Getting plenty of sleep (8 hours each night)
• Bringing your bodyweight back to normal
• Avoiding alcohol
• Stopping smoking
Many experts say that people who are at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease will not lower their risk just by altering their diet. Nevertheless, a healthy diet will have numerous health benefits.
Christian Nordqvist, (September, 2012) Medical News Today. October 8, 2013, MedicalNews.com.
American Heart Association, (December, 2012).AHA.com.