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Simply Said: Cholesterol (Part 1)

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.

So 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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One Comment

  1. Anonymous said on February 22nd, 2008

    Hi Andy. Great Blog site! Love the information and simple way you explain things.

    I wish to make a comment on your article about cholesterol. I am an engineer by education, and not a nutritional or medical expert so I more than happy to be proven wrong, however I have done quite a bit of reading on cholesterol and heart disease and some things just don’t make sense to me.

    One thing that your article (as well as “commonly known long-held views” about cholesterol and it’s role in the body) does not cover is *WHY* does the cholesterol build up in our arteries in the first place? It’s fine to push the simplistic view that high LDL levels cause cholesterol to build up in the arteries causing plaques that lead to clots, heart disease etc etc…but this commonly held view neglects to explain WHY cholesterol builds up in these areas in the first place.

    No-one can explain WHY cholesterol builds up in our arteries around the heart and not in other veins in the body – after all aren’t they all the same thing, just different sizes?

    This theory also highlights the simplistic view by also neglecting the fact that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that cholesterol is actually a healing agent – cholesterol is building up at points in the arteries because they are DAMAGED. Why are they damaged? What causes this damage in the arteries? Is it the mere presence of cholesterol that causes the damage? If cholesterol is viewed as a healing agent to heal the damage points in the arteries, then the risk levels associated with high total cholesterol levels seems to diminish, if not disappear. We should then be looking not to necessarily reduce cholesterol levels to reduce risk of heart disease, but to reduce/eliminate the things that causes the damage to the arteries in the first place – i.e. the root cause. Some people suggest stress, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption as major risk factors.

    There is also a growing body of evidence to suggest that LOW cholesterol levels in the body is a risk factor for cancers and other diseases since the body is depleted of cholesterol as a healing agent.

    Interested in your views on this. As I said I’m not a nutition or medical expert, just someone who has done a lot of reading on this topic.

    Regards
    David

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