Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in all animals (including us). It is transported around the body by the blood, is essential for building and maintaining cell membranes, and is necessary for the synthesis of bile acids, steroid hormones and some fat soluble vitamins. In a word – cholesterol is essential for life.

Sources

Cholesterol in the blood comes from two sources – the food you eat, and the cholesterol your liver produces. Meat and dairy products are the major sources of dietary cholesterol and typically, in the West, we take in around 200-200mg of cholesterol a day through diet. On the other hand, the amount of cholesterol produced by the body itself is much higher – about 1000mg per day. This cholesterol is produced by the liver, intestines, adrenal glands and the reproductive organs.

Pathways

Cholesterol floating in the blood is absorbed by the liver, converted into bile and sent to the gallbladder for use in the digestive tract to aid in the absorption of fats and fat soluble vitamins. About 50% of this bile cholesterol is reabsorbed back into the bloodstream via the small bowel.

As well as absorbing cholesterol from the blood, the liver also releases it directly into the blood stream.

So, broadly speaking, cholesterol enters our bloodstream via three pathways:

  • Diet.
  • Reabsorbed cholesterol from the bowel.
  • Cholesterol produced by the liver.

Cholesterol Carriers

As cholesterol is insoluble in blood it is enveloped and carried in the bloodstream by particles called lipoproteins. And this is where “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol come in.

LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) Cholesterol

This is the bad stuff. LDL carries cholesterol through the body and deposits it on the walls of arteries. Over time, these deposits form a hard substance called arterial plaque which gradually blocks the arteries and causes cardiovascular disease.

HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) Cholesterol

“Good” cholesterol, on the other hand, helps prevent heart disease by picking up cholesterol from the arterial walls and taking it to the liver where it is disposed of through the bile.

The higher your LDL and the lower your HDL, the greater the risk that you’ll suffer atherosclerosis (arterial plaque formation) and heart attacks.

So, How Do You Achieve the Right Balance?

LDL/HDL levels are largely determined by heredity, but they can be altered by diet, weight loss, and other lifestyle factors.

Diet

The amount of cholesterol you eat doesn’t affect your blood cholesterol levels as much as your total fat intake, particularly of saturated fats. Saturated fats cause levels of LDL to rise. Foods that contain high levels of saturated fats (not just cholesterol) include meat and dairy products and coconut and palm oils. The cocoa products in chocolate are also high in saturated fat.

Eating a lot of sweets and sugar can lower levels of the good HDL cholesterol.

Trans Fatty Acids (trans fats), formed when vegetable oils are partly hydrogenated or “hardened” for use in commercial food products, should be avoided at all costs as they both raise LDL and lower HDL.

Here are some simple changes you can make.

  • Choose trim milk over full-fat.
  • Choose lean cuts of meat.
  • Take the skin off chicken (it’s where most of the fat is).
  • Avoid pies, commercially made cakes, sausage rolls and junk food.
  • Reduce your intake of cheese, or at least switch to low-fat varieties.
  • Use olive oil (helps increase HDL).
  • Avoid trans fats – read the label, if it says something like “partially hydrogenated”, leave it on the shelf.

Lifestyle

Losing excess weight, regular aerobic exercise and stopping smoking will increase levels of HDL cholesterol.

It’s Your Choice

Cholesterol itself is perhaps not exactly the villain it has been made out to be. Of more significance to our health are the ways our bodies respond to certain fats and how they package and transport the resulting cholesterol. Though heredity plays a dominant role, we can influence our bodies’ responses through simple choices in the food we eat and the activities we engage in.

Cutting out the pies might seem tough, but it ain’t a patch on keeling over from a heart attack and waking up (if you’re lucky) in the cardiac ward.

Check out this video to learn more about cholesterol.

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Comments

  1. alpha says:

    Hi…
    Thank you so much for sharing the information. HDL cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol, appears to scour the walls of blood vessels, cleaning out excess cholesterol. It then carries that excess cholesterol — which otherwise might have been used to make the “plaques” that cause coronary artery disease — back to the liver for processing. So when we measure a person’s HDL cholesterol level, we seem to be measuring how vigorously his or her blood vessels are being “scrubbed” free of cholesterol.

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