Who has time to stay savvy about latest nutrition research these days? Besides, a nutritional breakthrough or wonder food makes headlines every Monday only to be disproved by Tuesday, right? Even though you may be seconds away from tossing in the kitchen towel and just eating your favorite comfort foods because you’re so frustrated and confused, don’t yet.
Nutrition trends come and go, but I’m here to provide you with evidence-based, sustainable ways to improve your health. Each month, I’ll focus on a nutritional hot topic, sift through tons of research, separate fact from fiction, and provide realistic solutions to help you improve your life.
Cholesterol is like financially preparing for retirement: you don’t want to think about it, but you know you should. Waa waa waa…
I know that “Learn about cholesterol” is possibly number 548 on your unending list of “Things to Do”. Typically on my list, it falls in between, “Organize family heirlooms in unmarked boxes” and “Solve linear equations.” However, since you’re going to be bombarded with heart health information this month, I thought I would jump on the bandwagon. But rather bore you with the same old info, I’m going to blow your mind with some info about cholesterol that you won’t even see coming.
So before I deliver the goods, I want to take a hot second and just provide a down and dirty on the topic of cholesterol, just so we’re all on the same page. If you don’t need a refresher, meet me a couple of paragraphs down.
The 411 on Cholesterol
What is cholesterol?
While most people think it’s a fat, cholesterol is actually a waxy substance classified as a sterol. Your body needs cholesterol to make hormones, and vitamin D. Your body makes enough cholesterol to do just that, and cholesterol is also found in meat, dairy and eggs (not in plant-based foods). If you have too much cholesterol in your body, it can form plaque in your arteries, making it harder for your heart to circulate blood and increasing your risk for cardiovascular disease.
What’s the difference between LDL and HDL?
When you go to the doctor, you probably hear two acronyms tossed around with cholesterol: LDL and HDL. In order for the cholesterol to get where it needs to go, it has to be moved through your body by special molecules called lipoproteins: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
LDL and HDL both transport cholesterol in the blood, but to different parts of your body:
- LDL bring cholesterol to cells throughout your body, which can result in cholesterol building up within arteries
- HDL bring cholesterol away from cells, deliver it back to the liver, where it is excreted from the body
Here are three things about cholesterol that will blow your mind:
1. The cholesterol found in food (dietary cholesterol) does not significantly affect your blood’s cholesterol levels.
Ever since February 2015, cholesterol has been revived in media headlines. The catalyst? The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), a group funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (a division of the United States Department of Agriculture), who decides what general recommendations about what and how much Americans should be eating, changed the long-standing recommendations of cholesterol consumption. According to the Scientific Report,
“Previously, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended that cholesterol intake be limited to no more than 300 mg/day. The 2015 DGAC will not bring forward this recommendation because available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol, consistent with the conclusions of the AHA/ACC report. Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”
Laymen’s terms: Dietary cholesterol (cholesterol found in food) does not affect our serum (blood) cholesterol numbers, and therefore, does not be limited as strictly as before.
2. (LDL Particle) size and density matters.
For years, the medical community believed that the amount of HDL and LDL particles found in the body was the only factor to consider when evaluating heart health. In general, individuals with high HDL and low LDL were considered to have better heart health that those with reversed results.
However, according to Dr. Mark Hyman, a leader in integrative nutrition and medicine, “the key to understanding whether cholesterol creates a problem [for cardiovascular health]” is to understand the different sizes and weights of [LDL] cholesterol particles, not just the numbers themselves.
So, the next time you’re at the doctor, go beyond the typical lipid panel (which really only evaluates “amounts” of cholesterol). Request a NMR lipid profile, which uses Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to measure cholesterol particle size and density.
Cholesterol particles fall into one of two subcategories:
- Small, dense particles
- Large, light/”fluffy” particles
Small, dense LDL cholesterol particles are linked to cardiovascular disease because they “bang” around inside the arteries and cause damage and, according to some researchers and medical practitioners, inflammation. On the other hand, large, fluffy particles “bounce” off the artery walls, and are not associated with cardiovascular disease.
You want beach balls, not golf balls.
3. You can eat a completely plant-based diet, and still have high cholesterol.
Yes, you read that right. You can eat a completely plant-based diet, and still have high cholesterol. But how is that possible?
- Diet (but not for the reasons you probably think)
High cholesterol and other lipid disorders do run in families. However, while genetics put the gas in the tank, environmental factors push the gas pedal to the floor.
While dietary cholesterol and saturated fat have gotten most of the blame for blood cholesterol levels, more recently, there’s a growing body of research that is shifting towards the connection between fructose (an inexpensive, simple sugar often added to numerous food products) consumption and cholesterol levels. Fructose consumption probably does not affect HDL, but very high fructose consumption (>8 tablespoons/day) raised total cholesterol and LDL.
Eight tablespoons may seem excessive and unrealistic, but considering that fructose is hidden in so many foods and beverages typically consumed in the Standard American Diet, it’s actually a lot easier than you may think. Did you know that agave, granola, and even mainstream energy drinks and bars can be loaded with fructose? Check the labels. You’ll be (unpleasantly) surprised.
Foods that Improve Cardiovascular Health
Even though the exact method for how diet affects heart heath is still unclear, health practitioners are confident that certain foods, especially those that include antioxidants, fiber, phytosterols, Omega-3s and polyphenols can support heart heath.
|Fruits and Vegetables||Rich in phytochemicals, antioxidants, and fiber||Onions, tomatoes, berries, apples, cabbage, avocado|
|Protein||Rich in amino acids, fiber, minerals, iron, and antioxidants||Peas, tempeh, organic tofu, legumes, beans|
|Whole-grains||Rich in dietary fiber, along with nutrients such as B vitamins, iron, vitamin E, polyphenols, magnesium, and selenium||Quinoa, brown rice|
|Nuts and Seeds||Rich in heart-healthy fats, antioxidants, phytosterols, protein, and fiber||Hemp seed, flaxseed, walnuts|
|Antioxidant-rich Beverages||Rich in antioxidants and polyphenols (resveratrol, procyanidins, quercetin)||Green tea, red wine|
What are you going to do this week to take ownership of your heart health?
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