Is Cholesterol Truly Bad For You?
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A misguided fallacy that persists to this day is the belief that dietary cholesterol from saturated fats increases your risk of heart attacks. The anti-saturated fat propaganda was started in the late 1950s by the American vegetable oil industry, in competition with the traditional fats like butter, lard (pork fat), and beef tallow (rendered beef fat).
As partially hydrogenated vegetable oils became more and more widely used and traditional fats shunned, we began to see an epidemic of heart attacks. The medical community initially blamed dietary cholesterol from saturated fats as the cause of the problem.
It was not until the late 1980s when the Canadian government first reported on the adverse effects of trans fat (product of partially hydrogentated vegetable oils) on blood cholesterol. Then finally in 1992, the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) acknowledged that heart disease, breast and prostate cancers are related to increased intakes of trans fat.
Dietary cholesterol is not associated with high blood cholesterol and risk of heart attacks. High blood cholesterol is the result of eating too much trans fat and having too much inflammation in your body.
Role Of Cholesterol In Our Body
The saturated fats from animal sources like meat, eggs, dairy products, and seafood contain cholesterol. For decades we have been avoiding dietary cholesterol for fear of high blood cholesterol and heart attacks. The truth is that our body actually requires a great deal of cholesterol for proper functioning. It is not even possible for us to eat enough cholesterol-containing foods every day to supply the amount that is needed for proper functioning.
First, the intestinal cells absorb less than half of the cholesterol that we eat.
Second, cholesterol from food sources only makes up about 20% of our body's daily cholesterol needs, our liver has to produce the other 80%. When there is no cholesterol in the diet, as in the case for strict vegetarians, the body's cholesterol synthesis becomes very active.
Cholesterol is vital for many body functions. We cannot survive without cholesterol.
• Cholesterol plays a critical role in maintaining the structure of all our cells. It helps the cell membranes keep their proper shape.
• Cholesterol in the skin is used in the process of vitamin D production.
• Cholesterol helps the liver produce bile acids. These acids are essential for digestion of fats.
• Cholesterol ensures that our brain (made of mainly saturated fats and cholesterol) functions properly by aiding the route of electrical impulses. Without it, we would have difficulty focusing and we might lose memory.
• Cholesterol plays an important role in the formation of sex hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
• Cholesterol acts as a precursor to vital corticosteroids, hormones that help us deal with stress.
• Cholesterol acts as an antioxidant against free radical attack.
• Cholesterol is used by the body as a raw material for the healing process. This is the reason the injured areas in the arteries (as in atherosclerosis) have cholesterol along with several other components such as calcium and collagen in the scar tissue.
We now know that coronary heart disease is caused by damage to the lining of our arteries. When damage occurs, chemicals are released to initiate the process of inflammation. Our liver manufactures cholesterol, then transports it through the bloodstream to repair the damaged tissue. If the damage is excessive, extra cholesterol will be distributed. Ultimately, scars, which we call plague, form inside our arteries.
Understanding Blood Cholesterol
Cholesterol is sometimes called a fat, but in reality it is a special kind of alcohol. Cholesterol is insoluble in blood; Therefore, it is transported in the circulatory system within carriers called lipoproteins (packages of fat and protein). There are many different types of lipoproteins within the blood; the two most abundant types are the high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and the low-density lipoproteins (LDL). The cholesterol within all the various lipoproteins is identical.
Many call HDL the "good" cholesterol because it takes old cholesterol that has been discarded by cells from the arteries back to the liver for recycling or excretion. Having large numbers of HDL particles correlates with good health. LDL, on the other hand, is usually called the "bad" cholesterol because it transports cholesterol from the liver to the damaged tissues. Having large numbers of LDL particles is an indication of inflammation and is strongly associated with accumulation of plague in the arteries.
Preventing Chronic Inflammation
Since inflammation is the cause of high blood cholesterol, having your blood tested for C-reactive protein (CRP) is an outstanding way to screen for hidden inflammation.
There are many nutritional and lifestyle approaches to reducing inflammation:
• Avoid all trans fat. A process called "partial hydrogenation" converts liquid vegetable oils into a man-made fat that has better functional characteristics for cooking, frying, and baking. Trans fat is detrimental because it lowers HDL (good) cholesterol and raises blood levels of Lp (a). It has become the mainstream of processed foods due to its lower cost and longer shelf life.
Avoid using margarine and hydrogenated vegetable oils made from canola, corn, safflower, soybean, and sunflower. Trans fat is also found in many baked goods such as cookies, crackers, cakes, pastries, snack chips and deep fried foods such as donuts, fried chicken, and French fries.
• Increase intake of omega-3 fats and reduce intake of omega-6 fats. Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory and omega-6 fats are pro-inflammatory but both are essential fatty acids required by the body. In our modern day diet, we just consume too much of the omega-6s (mostly from processed foods) and not enough of the omega-3s.
Best sources of omega-3 fats are fatty, cold-water fish or a high-quality, mercury and toxin-free fish oil. Flaxseed oil which contains alpha linolenic acid (ALA), the precursor of omega-3 fats, is not as preferable since many people are not effective in the conversion of ALA to omega-3s.
Omega-6 fats are found in vegetable oils such as corn, evening primrose, hemp, safflower, sesame, soybean, and sunflower. If you choose to use vegetable oils, only buy the cold-pressed version (all cold-pressed oils are expeller-pressed, but expeller-pressed oils are not necessarily cold-pressed) as high temperature processing always results in the formation of free radicals which depletes your body's antioxidant storage.
• Avoid foods cooked at high temperatures and charred meats.
• Optimize your insulin levels by eliminating sugars (especially high fructose corn syrup) and refined carbohydrates. Stick to low-glycemic, high-fiber carbohydrates.
• Optimize your vitamin D levels. A simple blood test called "25 (OH) vitamin D" will give you a good indication. If necessary, take an oral supplement of D3 (cholecalciferol).
• Start exercising at least 30 minutes on most days of the week. When you exercise, you increase your blood circulation throughout the body and your immune system gets strengthened.
• Don't stress. If you cannot reduce it, find ways to cope with it.
• If you drink, limit to one alcoholic drink a day for women and two for men.
• Do not smoke.
The Bottom Line
• The amount of cholesterol that we eat is not associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease.
• Our body requires much cholesterol for many vital functions.
• Our body has very active cholesterol synthesis capability to supplement whatever shortfall in our diet.
• If you are not allergic to eggs, it is okay to eat one whole egg every day.
• Trans fat is the worse of all fats. Do not use margarine; use a traditional fat such as butter instead. Avoid foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Stay away from deep fried foods and commercial baked goods. Be aware of the type of oil used in your favorite restaurants.
• Accumulation of plague in arteries is an indication of chronic inflammation in your body.
• Increase intake of omega-3s from fatty, cold water fish.
• Reduce intake of omega-6s by consuming less vegetable oils and processed foods.
• Exercise, reduce stress, drink moderately, and do not smoke.
By Carol Chuang