Confused by Cholesterol? Let's Simplify the Science.
If you are anything like me, when you first learned about cholesterol, you were a bit confused.
"Cholesterol is bad for your heart, so don’t eat it. That means eggs!"
"Well, wait... even though eggs have cholesterol I guess they are okay for you to eat in moderation, but definitely limit red meat and stick with lean poultry instead!"
"Oh, hold on! turns out some red meat is actually leaner than poultry, so.. hmmm..."
"Don't forget that some cholesterol is actually good for you, so make sure that you have high levels of the 'good cholesterol', but get rid of the 'bad cholesterol'!"
Thankfully, once you begin to understand the basic terminology and functions of cholesterol, I can promise you this will all be much more clear. After exploring this topic in-depth for school and in my career as a dietitian, I have learned a few tricks to help simplify this dynamic health issue. Hopefully my experience can help translate the science into terms that make sense to you!
What is cholesterol?
Simply put, cholesterol is a waxy type of fat that is made by our liver. In fact, the liver produces about 1,000 milligrams of cholesterol every day!
Everyone makes some form of cholesterol, including plants and animals.
Have you heard of plant sterols? Well, chole-STEROL is the version found in humans and animals, whereas plant sterols (those that you may find in margarines such as Benecol or Smart Balance) are made in plants! This is why you will only find cholesterol in animal products such as meat, eggs, and dairy.
And of course just as our own liver produces cholesterol, the same process occurs in animals, making liver a food choice that is very high in the stuff! (Most contains more than your complete daily requirement for cholesterol.)
What does cholesterol do?
Despite the bad reputation it has, cholesterol is actually needed in our bodies. This substance is used to make vitamin D, hormones, and bile (needed to break down the fats we eat in our diet).
However, I found it interesting to learn that most of us make more than enough cholesterol to meet these physiological needs. In fact, we truly have no need to eat more cholesterol in our diets (which is good because vegan diets are completely free from cholesterol which again, is only found in animal products).
So, if we do not NEED to eat cholesterol, what happens when we do?
Too much can definitely be a bad thing. Cholesterol can build up in your arteries and block blood-flow, making it harder and harder for your heart to push blood throughout your body. Ultimately, this added strain on your heart can cause heart problems and the fatty-build up in your arteries can actually burst, creating a blood clot which may cause a stroke or heart attack.
What is the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol?
This is an interesting question.
While most of us do categorize cholesterol as good or bad, what we are actually categorizing are the lipoproteins which carry the cholesterol. Cholesterol is cholesterol, but what is important is how that cholesterol is moved throughout our body.
In our blood stream, cholesterol is either carried by high-density lipoproteins (HDL) or low-density lipoproteins (LDL). The HDL actually picks up cholesterol and delivers it right back to the liver where it can be processed and removed from your body (a good thing!). LDL on the other hand, delivers cholesterol directly into your arteries where it can begin to block blood flow.
To help you remember the difference between these two types, try to think of them as Healthy HDL and Lousy LDL.
What are healthy levels for cholesterol?
The American Heart Association recommends that we keep our total cholesterol below 200 milligrams, though lower is even better!
When it comes to the types of cholesterol, of course we want more of our healthy HDL cholesterol and less of the lousy LDL cholesterol. Ideally our HDL will be at least in the range of 50-60 or higher and LDL will be 100 or less. If your HDL is less than 40 (for men) or 50 (for women), or if your LDL is higher than 130, it is time to take control of your cholesterol.
Can I improve my cholesterol levels?
Yes, you can. Stay tuned for more in a later blog post....