The Stakes Are High, Knowing The Basics Is Important
May 28st, 2004
By Ken McGrath : eCureMe Contributor
May 27th, 2004 : Physician Reviewed
Cholesterol is one of the hardest topics to get accurate, concise advice on. An
alphabet of terms - HDL "Good" cholesterol, LDL "Bad"
cholesterol, monounsaturated, trans-fats, triglycerides - all compete for
your attention. And every new report that comes out seems to contradict the last
one. Case and point: researchers have recently found that antioxidant vitamin
supplements, which were previously thought to guard against heart disease, may
increase the amount of bad cholesterol in the body. In a similar turnaround,
eggs, previously assailed by many doctors and scientists as nothing more than
tiny cholesterol bombs, have been shown not to affect an individual’s risk
of cardiovascular trouble.
It’s enough to make you want to give up on cholesterol all together, eat
what you like, when you like and hope for the best. But heart disease is
America’s top killer, topping even cancer, and the one certainty is that
too many fatty compounds in your system puts you at a higher risk. Trying to
figure out what you’re up against is more than worth the effort.
What is Cholesterol?
Chances are you’ve heard the term cholesterol so many times it has become
an abstract concept more than a concrete reality. Though you know what it is,
generally, you might not be able to define it, explain what it does in the body
and how it can be harmful. That’s why it helps to get down to basics.
Cholesterol is a soft, slippery substance that’s found in the bloodstream.
Contrary to what you hear about cholesterol being so bad for you, your body needs
it to function. Without cholesterol, your body couldn’t properly make cells
or synthesize certain hormones. Your liver makes about 80% of the cholesterol in
your body, only 20% is dietary cholesterol: cholesterol that comes from the
food (typically animal fats) you consume.
In and of itself, the cholesterol isn’t the problem. Like most fats,
cholesterol can’t dissolve in the bloodstream. In order for it to move
around the body, it has to latch onto certain proteins and, in effect, be carried
around by them. There are two important cholesterol-carrying proteins:
low-density lipoprotein (LDL, LDL cholesterol or "bad" cholesterol)
and high-density lipoprotein (HDL, HDL cholesterol or "good"
cholesterol). LDL carries cholesterol from the liver to cells throughout the
body. HDL carries cholesterol from the blood back to the liver, where it’s
filtered out of the system. LDL transports most of the cholesterol in the body.
HDL handles anywhere from a quarter to a third. When too much LDL cholesterol is
circulating in the blood, it drops out and builds up on the inside of the blood
vessels. The buildup, known as plaque, is mixture of LDL cholesterol and other
substances from the blood. As the plaque accumulates, it can choke off the blood
flowing past it, like a clogged drain chokes off the flow of water. If a blood
clot happens to flow into the clog, it can stop up the artery completely and
whatever organs the vessel was leading to will be starved for the oxygen the
blood carries. If the clot / plaque occur near the brain, this reaction is known
as a stroke. If it’s near the heart, the result is a heart attack.
What To Watch
In this process of cholesterol build up, scientists have hashed out several
simple facts. The more LDL cholesterol you have in your blood stream, the
greater the chance you’ll suffer a heart attack. Since HDL moves cholesterol
away from the arteries and towards the liver, the more you have of it, the less
risk you’re at. Some researchers believe that HDL can even pick up cholesterol
from artery walls and bring it back to the liver, thus slowing the progress of heart
disease where it already exist.
This dual action can get confusing when you think about measuring your cholesterol
level. Often, it’s common to assume that your risk for heart disease is
linked to the total amount of cholesterol in your system (LDL and HDL measured
together). While that can be a good indicator, it’s more important to break
it down and examine how much "good" and how much "bad" cholesterol
you’ve got. If your LDL level is above 160 mg/dl and your HDL is below 40
mg/dl, you’re going to want to work on lowering the bad and upping the good.
Lowering your cholesterol, if your levels are off kilter, can also be a baffling
process. Diet and exercise are the two most important changes you’ll need
to make. Exercise is fairly straightforward. More physical activity is associated
with higher levels of HDL. Diet is somewhat trickier. In general, you need to
reduce the amount of fat - especially animal fat - you consume. However,
there are many kinds of fats - saturated, poly- and monounsaturated and
trans fats. Not all of them are created equal, and cutting down on the wrong kind
could be counterproductive.
Trans fats are among the most damaging and most difficult to control. When
vegetable oil is heated around hydrogen (a process known as hydrogenation) the
chemical reaction generates trans fats. So any food that has been, or contains
ingredients that have been hydrogenated, will contain them. The real problem is
that hydrogenation plays a role in the preparation of popular processed foods.
Everything from potato chips to french fries to margarine contains dangerous
amounts of trans fats. Trans fats are dangerous because in addition to increasing
the amount of LDL in the bloodstream, it lowers the HDL. Any food product that
lists ingredients as "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated"
should raise a red flag.
Saturated fats are unhealthy as well, though they’re easier to spot.
Saturated fats occur naturally in animal products like fatty meats, whole milk,
cheese, ice cream and poultry skin. Coconut milk and oil are also high in saturated
fat. Like trans fats, saturated fat raises the amount of LDL in the system. However,
that increase is partially offset by the fact it also increases levels of HDL.
When you substitute "good fats" for saturated and trans fats, studies have
shown that HDL climbs while LDL falls. "Good fats" are unsaturated ones,
and can be broken down into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Monounsaturated fats come from more organic sources like olives, olive oil, canola
oil, nuts and avocados. Polyunsaturated fats are similar, and can be found in corn,
soybean products and fish.
View Previous Articles