How many people have we come across (maybe even us) who have been to their regular blood tests only to find that their cholesterol values have a little star beside it denoting “sorry mate….looks like you’ve got a problem there”. In this article I want to touch on what cholesterol actually is and how you can naturally keep it under check.
Short on time? Jump to the Conclusion
Most people tend to associate triglycerides and fats with cholesterol. Apples and oranges really.
Triglycerides are a storage and transport form of fatty acids. The structure is one of 3 (tri meaning three) fatty acids bounds to one glycerol (glyceride part of the name) molecule.
The fatty acids here can be saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.
The structure of cholesterol looks like this:
Cholesterol is a lipid/sterol (naturally occurring organic molecules) contained in the body’s cells and fluids that act as a precursor to fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K), hormones and bodily structures. It has several essential roles such as:
- Cell membrane function
- Absorption of dietary fat
- Synthesis of steroid hormones (including vitamin D)
- Production of sex hormones like androgens and estrogen
- Production of anabolic hormones responsible for muscle growth and repair
- Synthesis of bile salts
Nearly all the tissues in the body are able to synthesise cholesterol. The liver makes 20% and other tissues including the small intestine make 80%. This accounts for two-thirds of the total cholesterol entering in our body each day and outweighs the dietary cholesterol intake. Now, the body is smart at regulating this – should our dietary intake of cholesterol increase, the amount synthesised within the body decreases (and vice versa). Cholesterol, being insoluble in blood and hence not easy to transport, is packaged into lipoproteins and transported. These lipoproteins are what we know as HDL (High density lipoprotein), LDL (Low density lipoprotein) and VLDL (very low density lipoprotein). Apart from shuttling cholesterol around the body, the lipoproteins also carry triglycerides and other molecules. The “density” of the lipoproteins is the ratio of these molecules, the highest (HDL) made up of least amount of triglycerides and cholesterol and the lowest (VLDL) made up of the highest amount of triglycerides and cholesterol.
These cholesterols transport triglycerides ad cholesterol to the cells for various uses (including storage). When LDL deposits cholesterol in the circulatory system (Arteries, veins and capillaries – the blood vessels), there is an increased risk of fatty plaque formation (atherosclerosis) in the inner lining of the blood vessels. Also the size of the LDL particles is an important aspect to consider. They come in small, medium and big. Smaller size LDL particles deposit easily in the tissues lining the heart, blood and lymph vessels (the vessels carrying fluid containing immune building cells called lymphocytes from the blood vessels to the tissues) when compared to their larger counterparts. They then get oxidised releasing inflammatory and adhesive proteins resulting in atherosclerosis. Dietary intake of refines carbohydrates and trans fats tend to decrease the size of the LDL particles.
What LDL giveth, HDL taketh away! HDL is cardio protective by nature; it carries cholesterol and other fatty acids away from the cells and to the liver for excretion in the bile. With the help of a specific enzyme, HDL can carry cholesterol away from LDL reducing plaque build-up. This is why higher levels of HDL (with lower LDL levels) will get you a big whoop-de-whoop from your doctor.
There is a small catch here though – If you are diabetic/insulin resistant, HDL doesn’t function as it should.
What do I do now?
Whilst everyone would like to place the blame on cholesterol for heart diseases etc., it is not the sole culprit. There are several factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease risk including triglycerides (probably THE most important factor), homocysteine and antioxidant levels. That’s not to say that cholesterol gets away scott free. It still has a role to play.
So what can you do?….
- Physical activity everyday – get lean and drop the excess weight. Include strength training, flexibility and cardio workouts.
- Eat Fruits and Veggies like there’s no tomorrow (hint: smoothies are THE best way of getting in lots of fruit and veg). Include nuts and seeds (unsweetened) as well (take care that nuts are caloric dense so don’t binge on them).
- Whole grains and legumes are fibre rich and hence cholesterol lowering. Soluble dietary fibre binds to a portion of the bile salts in the small intestine during digestion and this combo is eliminated from the body. As new bile synthesis (in the liver) requires cholesterol, more cholesterol is utilised. Thus, fibre can lower blood cholesterol levels.
- Up your omega-3 intake by adding flax, chia and hemp seed to your meals. Walnuts are also rich in this essential fatty acids as are marines sources such as algae, salmon and mackerel.
- Limit/avoid meats and dairy. If you must eat meat, then make sure it’s organic and grass fed. Anything else is can feed the bad cholesterol.
- Apart from teaching my kids to steer clear of drugs and strangers with candy, I tell them to run for the hills when they see processed foods. Trans fats are an absolute no-no and should not feature in your diet if you care for your health. Always check the packaging.
- Limit highly caffeinated drinks like coffee (opt for lower caffeinated versions) as these can increase cholesterol by 10%. Instead, increase your tea intake. Tea helps to lower plaque build up.
- Limit your alcohol intake.
- Include spices like ginger, garlic and turmeric and other herbs. Cocoa in small amounts can also help.
Note: for those concerned about eggs, the science shows that how your body’s cholesterol regulates itself is dependent on the person. One study showed that 70% of the people showed no response in terms of total or LDL values, the other 30% showed a slight increase. Eggs can change the LDL particles from small to large (a good thing in terms of avoiding deposition and oxidation). Omega-3 rich eggs would be your best option if you choose to keep eggs as part of a healthy, well balanced diet.
Here’s a really cool table I found at Precision Nutrition:
TYPE OF EATING STYLE
% DECREASE IN LDL CHOLESTEROL
|American Heart Association Standard Guidelines||6%|
|Atkins Style (higher protein and fat)||No significant changes|
|Lower fat, plant-based, still including dairy and eggs||16%|
|Mediterranean||No significant changes|
|100% plant-based diet, well planned, with nutrient dense foods||33%|
Cholesterol plays an essential role in the body’s functioning and whilst higher levels do have a role to play in cardiovascular diseases, it’s not the only factor involved
HDL – “good cholesterol” takes shuttles cholesterol away from the cells and to the liver for elimination.
LDL – “bad cholesterol” takes cholesterol and fats from the liver to the cells.
Higher HDL values (with no insulin resistance) can combat the harmful effects of high LDL levels.
High LDL, and especially the smaller molecules cause plaque build up on the insides of the vessel walls.
Things you can do to tackle cholesterol:
- Include fruits, veggies, nut, seeds, whole grain and legumes as part of your diet
- Increase your omega-3 intake
- Drink tea
- Include ginger, garlic, turmeric and other herbs and spices in your diet
- Avoid trans fats
- Limit alcohol and caffeinated drinks
- Limit/cut out meat and dairy intake
Lifestyle changes play a vital role in maintaining good health. Proper nutrition and exercise can work wonders and leave you feeling like a new person. …everyone deserves to feel good.
Making lifestyle and diet changes are by no means easy especially if you’ve been doing things a certain way for as long as your can remember, but with guidance and support, and incorporating habits one at a time at your own pace you can make those big changes and be successful at keeping them up. These changes become your new lifestyle – your new way of doing things.
The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition, second edition – John Berardi, Ryan Andrews
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