The Truth About: Cholesterol
Nutrition is the foundation of health, and each food we eat influences the well-being of the body and soul. We all know the basics: have your five a day, don’t have chocolate for breakfast, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and so on. Beyond that, the diet landscape can appear to be a bit of a minefield, littered with disprovable old wives’ tales, muddled research theories and ‘miracle’ crash diets.
One thing that crops up a lot, particularly as we age, is keeping the heart strong and healthy by managing our ‘cholesterol levels’. The textbook one-size-fits-all advice is to eat less fatty food because too much saturated fat in the diet causes high cholesterol, which is very bad for you and can put you at risk of cardiovascular disease. But how true is this?
Myth 1: Cholesterol in food is the same as Cholesterol in the blood
‘Cholesterol’ in itself is not the bad guy, any more than saturated fat. In the same way that saturated fat unfairly gets the blame for body fat, cholesterol in food is blamed for body cholesterol; they are two separate things!
Cholesterol is crucial to our survival. It helps with making hormones and vitamin D, plus it helps maintain the structure of cells. In the average person, the body regulates how much cholesterol is in the blood by only creating enough body cholesterol for what it needs, based on how much food cholesterol is in your diet.
It’s actually very simple: the more cholesterol you eat, the less the body makes. The less cholesterol you eat, the more your body makes. Therefore, eating less cholesterol will not ‘lower your cholesterol’. The amount of cholesterol in the average person’s body stays about the same all of the time.
Myth 2: The more saturated fats you eat, the higher your cholesterol
So what is food cholesterol, and how is it part of our diet?
Until now, the common misconception has been that saturated fat makes your blood cholesterol levels rise, but this is another example of the food vs body cholesterol mix-up!
Foods that are high in saturated fats are also high in cholesterol. Food cholesterol reduces the amount of cholesterol made by the body, so foods rich in saturated fats will not raise cholesterol levels even though they have a high cholesterol content.
In fact, research has suggested that replacing saturated fats with alternatives can increase the risk of coronary heart disease, so clearly saturated fats can’t be to blame!
Natural foods that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol are important to your diet and very nutritionally valuable when eaten in non-excessive quantities. Great examples are grass-fed beef, whole eggs, fish oil and full-fat dairy products.
Myth 3: Too much cholesterol causes heart disease
We’ve now made a distinction between food and body cholesterol, and we already know that it’s very difficult for cholesterol levels to rise. So, how could it be cholesterol itself that causes all of the trouble?
Lipoproteins carry cholesterol around the body, and can be sorted into two types: High-Density Lipoproteins and Low-Density Lipoproteins.
Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDLs) are created when we eat too many carbohydrates than can be properly processed, so the excess is converted into fatty acids in the liver. When this happens, Very-Low-Density Lipoproteins are released into the bloodstream carrying cholesterol, before shrinking down in size to become LDLs. The more LDLs that carry the body cholesterol around the bloodstream, the higher the risk of cholesterol clogs in the arteries and the risk of heart disease.
High-Density Lipoproteins filter excess cholesterol in the bloodstream back towards the liver to be processed properly, keeping the arteries clear.
The simple truth?
Cholesterol itself isn’t the problem, rather what type of lipoprotein transports it around the body. Instead of worrying about saturated fats causing ‘high’ or ‘low’ cholesterol, eating the right quantities of fat, protein and carbohydrates for your body will help keep everything ticking along smoothly and with vitality.
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