Did you know that cholesterol is a natural and essential part of your body? Unfortunately people see it as something that should be avoided completely, going to great lengths to avoid foods that contain it! So do you really need to deny yourself all the good stuff in life’ to maintain your cholesterol – or are there ways to ‘let some of the good stuff in’ without sacrificing the all foods you love?
Firstly, let me start by assuring you that, your body needs cholesterol. It needs it to digest foods, produce hormones and to protect your cells.
Confusion about cholesterol exists because many people don’t understand that there is a difference between dietary and blood cholesterol.
Dietary cholesterol is the stuff found in foods from animal sources. Meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products all provide cholesterol in varying amounts.
Blood cholesterol is the cholesterol that circulates in your blood. Most of it – about 80 per cent – is produced by your liver. Blood cholesterol comprises:
- High Density lipoprotein (HDL) which is the good form of cholesterol that your body needs.
- Low density lipoprotein (LDL) which are the bad guys – the ones your body can do without!
If you have been told that you have high cholesterol, your health professional is talking about your blood cholesterol levels. The concern is that they’re a major risk factor for heart disease. If you have high blood cholesterol or have a history of heart disease in your family, reducing your cholesterol to a healthy level is important for long-term good health.
High Cholesterol Causes
Cholesterol from foods is often blamed for high blood cholesterol levels. However for most people, cholesterol from foods has little effect on blood cholesterol levels.
Genetic factors, diabetes, thyroid, kidney or liver disease, smoking, lack of exercise, excess body weight, metabolic syndrome, Poly Cystic Ovarian Disorder and high fat diets can all contribute to elevated cholesterol readings.
High fat intake: Understanding the different types of fats in your diet is a step in the right direction.
Saturated fat and Trans fatty acids are responsible for increasing total and LDL (bad) blood cholesterol levels.
- Saturated fats are found mostly in meat, egg yolks, dairy products made from whole milk, and foods that contain hydrogenated fat, including palm or coconut oils. Saturated fats increase total and LDL blood cholesterol levels but also reduce HDL (good) blood cholesterol levels.
- Trans fats are found in foods that contain partially hydrogenated fats such as some margarines, fries, doughnuts, fried chicken and fish, crackers, chips, cookies and bakery products. Trans fats have the same effect as saturated fats in our bodies.
- Monounsaturated fats are found mostly in canola, olive and peanut oils and foods made with these oils, nuts and seeds. These fats help decrease total and LDL blood cholesterol.
- Polyunsaturated fats are found in oils made from sunflowers, safflowers, corn, soybeans, nuts, flaxseed and sesame seeds. These fats have been found to reduce total and LDL blood cholesterol levels, particularly when eaten as part of a diet that is lower in fat.
The accepted approach for lowering or keeping blood cholesterol levels in a healthy range is to focus on reducing your total fat intake, especially the amount of saturated and trans fat that you eat. However, simply omiting foods because they contain cholesterol is not the best solution. Dairy products, meat and eggs all contain cholesterol but avoiding these foods could prevent you from getting some of the important nutrients found in them such as calcium, protein, iron, zinc or B-vitamins.
Genetics: influence the levels of your LDL (bad) cholesterol by determining how fast LDL is made and removed from your blood. One specific form of inherited high cholesterol that affects 1 in 500 people is called familial hypercholesterolemia, which can lead to early heart disease.
Weight: Excess weight may increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol level. If you are overweight and have a high LDL cholesterol level, losing weight may help you lower it. Weight loss especially helps to lower triglycerides and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels. If you have tried to lose weight in the past with no success, you may have an underlying hormonal imbalance that needs to be addressed.
Exercise: Regular physical activity may lower triglycerides and raise HDL cholesterol levels.
Age and Gender: Before menopause, women usually have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. As women and men age, their blood cholesterol levels rise until about 60-65 years of age. After about age 50 years, women often have higher total cholesterol levels than men of the same age.
Alcohol use: Moderate (1-2 drinks daily) alcohol intake increases HDL (good) cholesterol but does not lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Drinking too much alcohol can damage the liver and heart muscle, lead to high blood pressure, and raise triglyceride levels. Because of the risks, alcoholic beverages (alas; red wine) should not be used as a way to prevent heart disease. Just remember – too much of a good thing, can be bad for you!
Stress: Several studies have shown that stress raises blood cholesterol levels over the long term. But before you threaten to sue your boss for causing your high cholesterol, remember that one way that stress may do this, is by affecting your habits. For example, when some people are under stress, they console themselves by eating fatty foods – not really an admissible claim in court! I suppose it could give rise to a new movie title – ‘She died with a croissant in her hand …’
What you can do:
Exercise regularly: Make higher-fibre foods such as whole grain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables the focus of each meal. Include more meals made with meat alternatives such as beans, peas, lentils and tofu. Choose lower-fat dairy products such as buttermilk, skim milk, 1% milk, and yoghurt and cottage cheese made with 1% milk fat or less. Enjoy fish more often, choose lean cuts of meat, have poultry without skin and limit serving sizes to about the size of a deck of cards. Eat foods prepared with little or no extra fat. Have foods containing shortening or partially hydrogenated fats and oils in moderation.
Read labels: “Cholesterol-free” foods can still be high in fat. Some examples include potato chips and cookies.
Change your diet: Switching to a diet that is lower in fat, higher in fibre and participating in regular physical activity can help keep your blood cholesterol in a healthy range.
Hormonal imbalances: Rule out other health conditions, such as hypothyroidism, that may be influencing your cholesterol levels. Remember though, that a single blood test may not always reveal the full picture. Begin by documenting your signs and symptoms and then contact a health professional to help you get to the bottom of what’s going on.
Normalise your insulin levels: most people can normalise their insulin levels by eliminating sugar and processed grains. Unless they have the genetic defect, familial hypercholsterolemia. On a side note, eliminating sugar and processed grains will inevitably cause beneficial side-effects, such as normalising your weight, increasing your energy and lowering your blood pressure and triglycerides.
Check your iron levels: elevated levels of iron can raise cholesterol levels and cause oxidative damage in the blood vessels, heart and other organs.
Take a high-quality fish oil: full of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. It is important to find fish oil that is independently tested by a lab and found to conform to purity guidelines. This will ensure that the oil is free of mercury and other toxins.
Consider cutting your cholesterol with policosanol: A supplement containing sugar-cane wax, now readily available in Australia, has been found to benefit cholesterol maintenance.
Consult a herbalist: There are a number of options available, such as Cynara scolymus, Plantago psyllium, conifer, lecithin and garlic. All of these are well documented as effective cholesterol regulating herbs; however it is best to consult a naturopath or herbalist before use.
The ‘bottom line’ is that you need to take charge of your cholesterol: no one can do it for you. The answer is not as simple as ‘popping a pill’ or eating a ‘low cholesterol’ cookie. Appropriate diet & lifestyle changes are your first line of defense – so what are you waiting for?
Narelle Stegehuis, CEO of MassAttack, is a practicing Naturopath specializing in the research and development of natural treatment programs for women with hormonal imbalances. She is both a prolific writer and recent recipient of the Australian Naturopathic Excellence Award 2006.
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