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Simply Said: Cholesterol (Part 1)

Posted Sep 12 2008 11:50am
Welcome to yet another new section of the Small Bites blog. "Simply Said" will help you understand confusing or overwhelming nutrition topics.

We begin with cholesterol. Our livers and cells produce about 80% of our body's cholesterol, a precursor to hormones like estrogen and testosterone and necessary for producing vitamin D out of the sunlight that hits our skin. That being said, cholesterol is not essential (meaning it is not necessary to get additional amounts from our diet).

There are four types of cholesterol, but the two you want to think about are low density (LDL) and high density (HDL). The four variations combined make up what is known as your total cholesterol.

LDL is the bad (or "lame") cholesterol. What's so bad about it? Well, the higher your LDL cholesterol, the higher your risk of strokes, heart attacks, and blood clots.

Why is this? LDL cholesterol ends up being deposited on the walls of our arteries, where it turns into hard plaque and restricts bloodflow.

HDL is the good (or "healthy") cholesterol that helps prevent plaque deposits by taking them to the liver for processing and removal when it spots them.

If your body were a town, LDL would be the litterbugs and HDL would be the sanitation workers.

Now, it is true that genes play a somewhat significant role in this. Some people -- no matter how healthy they eat -- have high levels of LDL, while others can go through life eating junk and still boast high HDL numbers.

Although the drug companies would love for all us to be on statins (cholesterol-lowering medication), the majority of us are in that middle area where our cholesterol profiles can be modified by diet.

Let's get this straight once and for all. It is not cholesterol in foods that raises our bad cholesterol, but saturated fat, found only in animal products (except those that are non-fat). So, when a package of bread boasts a "cholesterol-free" label on it, you can reply back, "well, duh!" and dismiss it as semi-dishonest marketing rather than groundbreaking nutritional information.

S o how do you lower cholesterol? Physical activity is a must, but when it comes to food, your best weapon is soluble fiber (found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and oatmeal), which bundles up and flushes out excess cholesterol.

(Note: physical activity does not have to mean a busy gym or loud spinning class. Simply increasing the distance you walk every day is enough to have an effect on your cholesterol levels).

Back to the nutrition factor. Going low-fat is NOT the answer to lowering your cholesterol. Rather, you want to go smart-fat. Monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, avocados, and flaxseed) are helpful at maintaining our good cholesterol levels (a low-fat diet can actually lower it). Remember, the goal isn't just to lower bad cholesterol, but to increase the good one, too.

Tomorrow we'll finish up this segment with some numbers to help you make sense of your next blood lab results.
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