The Cholesterol Conundrum
A friend of mine once commented that his cholesterol had gone up and to his surprise, it was the bad (LDL) cholesterol. His GP recommended he cut down on saturated fats and exercise more. My friend eats healthily and exercises several times a week so was a little perplexed as to why his LDL levels were up.
Cholesterol is a complex topic to understand so it has prompted me to write this blog about it as many of us know the word, but do we really understand what it means.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that we use to build cells and help our brain and other organs to function. It is basically essential to life! Our liver manufactures it and we also ingest cholesterol; specifically from animal products such as meat, eggs, milk and milk products (yoghurt, cheese etc.).
Contrary to popular belief, ingested cholesterol may not necessarily have a negative impact on cholesterol levels. This is because other dietary factors such as fat intake, and hereditary factors should be considered. So there’s no need to stop eating eggs if you have high cholesterol.
Apart from building cells and helping our organs function, cholesterol is also used as the building block of lipoproteins, which carry lipids (fats) around the body. There are a couple of different types of lipoproteins, the common ones you come across when talking about cholesterol are:
· VLDL – very low-density lipoprotein
· LDL – low-density lipoprotein
· HDL – high-density lipoprotein
VLPL and LDL (hereon in collectively referred to as LDLs) carry fats around the body. HDL on the contrary clean up our system by helping to get fats and cholesterol back to the liver for disposal or reuse.
Excess LDLs are bad for our health as they can build up to form plaque on artery walls that can then lead to blockages. Therefore when have our cholesterol checked, it is important to understand the level of LDLs and HDL. You want your LDLs to be low and HDLs to be high; Think “L” for low LDL and “H” for high HDL.
I mentioned earlier that our dietary intake of cholesterol does not always lead to higher cholesterol. This is because our intake of dietary fat can impact our cholesterol levels. Remember, I said LDLs transport fats around the body, so it kind of follows that a fat intake is linked to LDL production.
Saturated fats and trans-fats are the types of fat most likely to negatively impact our cholesterol ratio (LDL vs HDL). Recent studies indicate however that not all saturated fats impact cholesterol but for simplicity, let’s keep them all bucketed together.
Saturated fats – typically solid at room temperature. Think butter, animal fat, palm and coconut oil.
Trans-fats – chemically processed unsaturated fats used by the food industry to create saturated fats that aid product shelf life, improve taste etc. These fats act like saturated fats in the body.
Here are some suggestions to improve your LDL/HDL ratio:
Reduce saturated and trans-fat intake – buy lean meats or trim excess fat from meat, limit processed foods like processed meats (e.g. salami), microwave popcorn, biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, commercial burgers, pizzas etc.
Swap out saturated fats like butter and coconut oil with predominantly unsaturated fats like oils, margarines, nut butters, avocado etc.
Maintain a healthy body weight and regular exercise – this helps minimise fat in the bloodstream.
Increase dietary fibre – eat more fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, and wholegrain cereals/grains. The fibre will help flush dietary fat therefore reducing the need for LDL production. The polyphenols will help reduce LDL absorption. The beta-gluten in oats will also reduce cholesterol reabsorption.
Avoid excessive glycaemic highs (i.e. blood sugar level peaks) – peaks may increase LDL arterial build up. Aim to eat low GI foods like fruits and vegetables. Limit processed foods, sweets, fizzy drinks etc.
There is a lot of varying information out but generally speaking, it’s fairly consistent. My recommendation is to simply eat a healthy, well balanced diet, rich in fresh fruit, vegetables, and lean protein (eggs, lean meat, fish etc.). Limit processed foods like fast food, packaged foods, fizzy drinks, cakes/sweets etc. and exercise regularly.
Get your cholesterol checked at least once a year and ask your GP to explain your LDL/HDL levels. Understand if you have any family history of high cholesterol and let your GP know. Seek the help of a professional Dietician if needed and see a Health/Nutrition Coach to keep you on track.