Everyone these days seems to be talking about cholesterol and diet. Despite the fact that people in the West have been trying to eat right, cut down on their cholesterol, and consume a low-fat diet, obesity has reached almost epidemic proportions in America.
So what exactly is cholesterol? And why are fats supposedly so bad for us? Above all, if we have all been watching our fats, how is it that over 6 out of 10 Americans is overweight?
Cholesterol is a fatty waxy substance produced by the body, and also consumed by us through eating animal-based foods.
The focus on dietary cholesterol has caused many people to overlook the fact that your body actually produces cholesterol itself, and in fact needs it in order to be able to function properly. All fats contribute to keeping cell membranes stable, and aids in the production of certain hormones.
Cholesterol only becomes a problem for people when too much of the cholesterol in the body begins to circulate in the blood and builds up inside arteries, leading to a condition known as atherosclerosis or arteriosclerosis.
If too much cholesterol builds up, that artery becomes blocked. If a piece of the blockage breaks off and becomes a blood clot, it can travels through the bloodstream and cause a heart attack or stroke.
The biggest factor in high cholesterol in humans is not diet but heredity. Your liver is supposed to help remove excess cholesterol from the body, but sometimes the mechanism goes awry. In that case, watching what you eat can make a difference. For other people, their doctor may prescribe a statin drug in order to help lower their blood serum cholesterol.
However, statins can actually cause liver damage, making the imbalance in the body even worse.
In addition, cholesterol numbers do not always explain the whole picture. That's because not all cholesterol is created equal.
We now know that there are 4 main components to cholesterol, HDL, LDL, VLDL, and triglycerides. They stand for High Density Lipoproteins (fats), Low Density and Very Low Density. For HDL, think H for helpful. For LDL and VLDL, think Lousy and Very Lousy.
HDL cholesterol molecules are large and help keep the blood vessels open. LDL and VLDL are much smaller, and can stick to the walls of an artery. This is not too a serious a problem if you have high HDL cholesterol, and low LDL. The trouble is, most people have the opposite. Therefore, over time, there is not enough HDL to keep the arteries clean, and so the VLDL and LDL can they can build up into a blockage. If part of these sticky cells break off and lodge in a blood vessel in the heart, they can cause heart attack, stroke, or even amputation of a limb.
For triglycerides, which help us keep up our energy levels between meals, think Trips and rides. If you stay active through exercise, such as walking to work or the store, instead of taking the car, or riding your bike, your body will be able to process the fat to give you energy, not store it as fat on your body.
The more fat you have in your body, the more likely you are to get out of balance. However, certain foods like olive oil and walnuts can promote HDL cholesterol, to limit the activities of LDL in the body.
Fat can also help you feel full, especially animal fats and dairy products like butter and cheese, so that you actually end up eating less at a meal even if you are having some fat. The Mediterranean diet has been cited as heart healthy due to olive oil, red wine, and small portions of foods like cheeses and meats in moderation.
Not all fat is created equal, therefore. Look at your cholesterol test carefully. The ideal number is supposed to be less than 200 but if you have high HDL cholesterol, there should be no reason to go on a statin drug.
As for cholesterol in your diet, many foods now label themselves as low or no cholesterol, but this is misleading. It is found mainly in animal sources, so try to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and substitute beans for meat for protein in your diet. Likewise margarine may seem a more healthy choice than butter, but it may contain trans-fats, which can clog arteries even more than butter.
If you look at the Food Pyramid from the US Department of Agriculture, it recommends people have no more than 7 teaspoons of fat per day in all of the food they consume, and depending on age and gender.
You may not be able to do much about heredity, but watching your diet and aiming for healthy fats can help lower your cholesterol naturally.