You’ve heard there was a bit of an over-emphasis (borderline obsession) about cholesterol, right? This one really gets under my skin, guys! So much so that I want to talk about some of the myths that surround this very hot topic. But before we jump into some of those myths, let's make sure we're on the same page when it comes to what exactly cholesterol is.
Myth #1: “Cholesterol” is cholesterol
Cholesterol is just one component of a compound that floats around your blood. These compounds contain cholesterol as well as fats and special proteins called “lipoproteins”. They're grouped into two main categories:
● HDL: High Density Lipoprotein (AKA “good” cholesterol) that “cleans up” some of those infamous “arterial plaques” and transports cholesterol back to the liver.
● LDL: Low Density Lipoprotein (AKA “bad” cholesterol, more on that below) that transports cholesterol from the liver and the small particle kind is found to accumulate in arteries and become easily oxidized hence their “badness”. But it only accumulates there because the small particles act like putty, trying to fill in the holes and tears in our arteries caused by inflammation. You see, LDL is the first responder on the scene when there is something going wrong in our bodies caused by a bad diet or an injury, and yet somehow we label it bad because we think that is what causes heart disease. There is a lot we can do to lower our LDL, first clean up our diets, how? By cutting out the sugar and refined flours first, we reduce inflammation dramatically and as a result, lower our LDL numbers.
And yes, it's even more complicated than this. Each of these categories is further broken down into subcategories which can also be measured in a blood test. So “cholesterol” isn't simply cholesterol because it has very different effects on your body depending on which other molecules it's bound to in your blood and what it is actually doing there.
Myth #2: All cholesterol is bad
Again, no. Cholesterol is absolutely necessary for your body to produce critical things like vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun, your sex hormones (e.g. estrogen and testosterone), as well as bile to help you absorb dietary fats. Not to mention that it's incorporated into the membranes of your cells. This is why low-fat diets are not ideal. We mess with our hormones when we don’t eat enough good fats.
Talk about an important molecule! The overall amount of cholesterol in your blood (AKA “total cholesterol”) isn't nearly as important as how much of each kind you have in your blood. While way too much LDL cholesterol as compared with HDL (the LDL:HDL ratio) may be associated with an increased risk of heart disease it is absolutely not the only thing to consider for heart health.
Myth #3: Eating cholesterol increases your bad cholesterol
Most of the cholesterol in your blood is made by your liver. It's actually not from the cholesterol you eat. Why do you think cholesterol medications block an enzyme in your liver (HMG Co-A reductase, to be exact)? Because that's where it's made! What you eat still can affect how much cholesterol your liver produces. After a cholesterol-rich meal your liver doesn't need to make as much. So there is a balance, a sort of self-regulating mechanism built into our systems; our liver will simply stop making cholesterol if it senses there is already enough of it from what we eat.
Myth #4: The lower the cholesterol the better
Negative! As with almost everything in health and wellness there's a balance that needs to be maintained. There are very few extremes that are going to serve you well. People with too-low levels of cholesterol have increased risk of death from other non-heart-related issues like certain types of cancers, as well as suicide. Again, low-fat diets are not ideal.
Myth #5: Drugs are the only way to get a good cholesterol balance
Of course, don't start or stop any medications without talking with your doctor. And while drugs can certainly lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol they don't seem to be able to raise the “good” HDL cholesterol all that well. But guess what does? Nutrition and exercise, baby! In fact, one of the most impactful ways to lower your cholesterol with diet is to eat lots of fruits and veggies. I mean lots, say up to 10 servings a day. Every day. And certainly, you must lower your processed sugar intake, that is where the problem lies, inflammation caused by an unhealthy, sugar-heavy diet. There are of course a small percentage of people who do not respond to diet and exercise and for whom only cholesterol-lowering drugs will work.
Don't worry the recipe below should help you add at least another salad to your day.
You can (should?) also exercise, lose weight, stop smoking, and most importantly, eat better quality fats. That means fatty fish, avocados and olive oil. Ditch those over-processed hydrogenated “trans” fats.
To sum it up, the science of cholesterol and heart health is complicated and we're learning more every day. You do not need to be afraid of cholesterol. And there is a lot you can do from a nutrition and lifestyle perspective to improve your cholesterol level. Don’t fear fat! I think you're beginning to understand my stand on fat, I love it! So on that note, I leave you with an easy recipe to get those good fats flowing in your system:
'til next time!
Hemp seed salad dressing
Makes about 3/4 cup
½ cup hemp seeds
½ cup orange juice
1 clove of garlic, peeled
dash salt and/or pepper
Blend all ingredients together until creamy. Serve on top of your favorite salad or protein and enjoy!
Tip: Store extra in airtight container in the fridge. Will keep for about a week