Cholesterol is a lipid, or a naturally occurring fatty molecule such as oil, wax, and fat, found in all animal tissue within the cell membrane. It is transported throughout the body by the circulatory system and it is insoluble in blood meaning it does not break down and must be transported within particles called lipoproteins. Cholesterol tends to conglomerate in areas of the body that either synthesizes the molecule or that have densely packed cells such as the liver, brain and spinal cord. Most of our cholesterol comes from a dietary source through animal products however even plants and some fungi contain the lipid and our bodies are able to utilize these sources as well.
Although the general belief is that too much cholesterol in the body is bad, it is actually required for many biochemical processes and the production and use of many hormones. What is not generally known is that there are five types of cholesterol with two of the five playing the starring roles in our bodies – low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) - while the other three play supporting roles that only a biochemist would understand or get excited about.
High levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are associated with arthrosclerosis – the formation of plaque or fatty deposits in the vascular system that leads to restrictions or, in severe cases, blocks blood flow completely. The outcome is a heart attack or a stroke depending on which of the two organs is slowly suffocated – the heart or the brain.
On the other hand, high-density lipoproteins (HDL) actually help lower the levels and concentration of LDLs in the circulatory system so part of the treatment for high cholesterol is not only lowering the intake of LDLs but also increasing the ingestion of high-density lipoproteins.
Low-density lipoproteins are most often found in animal products or products high in animal fat and the rule of thumb is that if the fat is solid at room temperature – lard, butter, cream, milk, eggs, red meat and even chocolate – avoid it. These fats are usually classed as saturated fats and they are bad in more ways then just cholesterol levels – avoid, avoid, avoid!
High-density lipoproteins are most often found in unsaturated fats – nuts, some vegetables and vegetable oils, olives, peanuts and canola oil. These fats remain in liquid form at room temperature and although they contain the same amount of calories per gram as unsaturated fats, they will only contribute to an increase in your waistline, not in your risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.
The other source of HDLs is through essential fatty acids (EFAs) found in polyunsaturated fats. These fats are the lipids our bodies use to metabolize hormones and since our bodies cannot produce this cholesterol, it must come from our food instead. The king of the EFAs is Omega-3 found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, trout, herring and tuna as well as walnuts, leafy green vegetables, flaxseed and flaxseed oil and canola oil.
Omega-3 EFAs increase the levels of high-density lipoproteins within the circulatory system that helps to break up ‘bad’ cholesterol or LDLs from cells and atheroma formations (the plaque that leads to arthrosclerosis).
Unfortunately, the balance between ‘good’ HDLs and ‘bad’ LDLs is genetic – if your parents suffered from high cholesterol, the chances are good that you too will need to watch your saturated fat intake as you age. There are many medications on the market to help lower cholesterol levels for these people but the best treatment is actually prevention – early recognition and then avoidance of foods high in low-density lipoproteins while increasing the intake of HDLs as well as foods high in Omega-3 EFAs helps negate our genetic predisposition substantially.
If you exercise daily, control your weight and increase your healthy fats while lowering the bad ones, there is a good chance you will live a long, healthy life free of heart disease and long-term illness. Choose salmon over beef, if you must have eggs chose ones fortified with Omega-3 and enjoy a spinach salad with roasted walnuts for lunch at least once a week – your heart will thank you for it!