The great cholesterol debate continues. Some say cholesterol is good and others say it is bad – well both are right. Cholesterol plays an important role in the body, however, high levels are associated with heart disease. Let’s simplify the facts and get to know what exactly cholesterol is, how it works in the body, and how to eat optimally to ensure balanced cholesterol levels.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fat-like, waxy substance found in all cells of the human body. In balanced levels, cholesterol helps the body to make essential hormones and vitamin D as well as assisting with the digestive process. The body can make all the cholesterol it needs, however, it is also ingested by the foods we eat. It is here that the balance may be disrupted, leading to some negative effects of cholesterol in the body.
How Does Cholesterol Work in the Body?
Cholesterol travels in the blood in small packages called lipoproteins. Two types of these lipoproteins exist and have been recently termed the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol.
Although both types are essential, high levels of LDL, or low-density lipoproteins, are associated with increased risk of heart disease. This is because high levels of LDL leads to a buildup of cholesterol in the arteries, which carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body. In heart disease cases, plaque (made up of fat, calcium and cholesterol) build up inside of the heart arteries. This plaque hardens over time and starts to block the surface area of the artery, resulting in a narrowing effect. This plaque can also burst, resulting in a blood clot forming on the surface. If this clot is large enough, it can block blood flow through the artery, resulting in a heart attack, stroke or an angina. By lowering your LDL cholesterol, you may be able to prevent the build up and bursting of this plaque, therefore improving your risk of heart disease and heart attack.
HDL cholesterol is commonly termed ‘good cholesterol’ as it carries cholesterol to the liver to be eliminated. Higher levels of HDL is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease. It is important to eat a varied diet in order to maintain a good balance of LDL and HDL cholesterol.
It is important to understand when genetics comes in as this can directly influence your cholesterol levels. Familial hypercholesterolemia is a disorder that is passed through generations. It results in high levels of LDL cholesterol as the body is unable to remove it from the bloodstream. This results in an increased risk of heart disease. The first step to counteract the risk of heart disease is a lifestyle change. A healthy diet alongside a moderate exercise plan has shown beneficial effects of lowering triglycerides (fat) and LDL cholesterol, while increasing HDL cholesterol.
Whether you have hereditary high cholesterol or not, the nutritional intervention remains the same. The nutritional advise supporting cholesterol levels in the body is much the same as any other nutritional program for optimal health, so following a cholesterol-lowering diet is sure to show many health benefits.
Nutrition and Cholesterol
Recent research has been investigating the effect of plant sterols on cholesterol levels. Plant sterols are found in small quantities in fruits and vegetables, vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, cereals and legumes. The plant sterols work by blocking the absorption of cholesterol in the small intestine, therefore lowering the LDL cholesterol. Strangely enough, studies have shown that there is no effect on the HDL cholesterol. What’s more is these plant sterols do not interfere with cholesterol-lowering medication, and have been deemed safe to use by the whole family. Since sterols are found naturally in vegetarian and vegan sources, there really is no need for anyone to avoid them. Focus on adding these to your plate as the bulk of any meal, and there will be less space for the portions containing saturated and trans fats.
Foods Naturally High in Plant Sterols
- Peanuts and natural peanut butter (one of the best sources of plant sterols)
- Almonds and natural almond butter
- Garbanzo beans
- Sesame seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Legumes such as lentils and dried beans
- Cereals such as brown rice, oat bran and whole wheat
Diet plays an important role in lowering LDL cholesterol, and exercise is should support this. Regular exercise has been associated with lower LDL cholesterol and decreased risk of heart disease.
Foods to avoid
I like to think about including nutrients in the diet, rather than eliminating food groups. By including a variety of healthy foods, your plate will have less space to fit on the fatty, cholesterol-containing foods. Keep these to a minimum:
- Saturated fat – full fat dairy products, red meat and eggs
- Coconut oil and butter
- Trans fats are found in processed foods, chocolates, biscuits and cakes, and deep fried foods. These should be avoided as they contribute to a number of health-related issues, including cholesterol.
Not all fats should be limited as they play a very important role in the digestion and absorption of vitamins and minerals. Certain fats, namely unsaturated fats can help reduce cholesterol levels. Where to find these fats:
- Oily fish
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil and olive
By including these, while limiting your intake of saturated and trans fats, you retain the benefits of fats as well as reducing cholesterol.
Low carbohydrate diets are associated with lower LDL and higher HDL cholesterol levels. The trick here is to focus on eating complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice, oats, sweet potatoes and vegetable sources, instead of refined carbohydrates such as cakes, biscuits, crisps, white bread and pasta.
The Role of Exercise
Exercise has been associated with increased levels of HDL cholesterol, especially in males with high triglycerides (fat) and abdominal adiposity (fat). This increase of HDL as a result of exercise is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, when compared with sedentary individuals.
Luckily, all types of cholesterol issues are treated in the same way – First look at your lifestyle, and then look at cholesterol-lowering medication. Focus on decreasing your saturated and trans fats and increasing unsaturated fats in the diet. Focus on whole, fresh foods and lots of fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds. Fixing the underlying causes of disease addresses so many issues, and adopting a healthier lifestyle can impact on many areas of life.
Some links to particularly cholesterol-friendly meals: