Back to Basics
At the end of last week’s post I mentioned that how much body fat we have and where we store it can affect cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a hot topic. Are we supposed to eat foods with cholesterol or avoid them? Are eggs killing us, or are they good for us? Well, before we can answer those questions, let’s take it back to the basics and discuss what cholesterol is so we can understand if we should eat it.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is fat-like substance that is an essential part of the structure of our cells. Our bodies naturally make it and we need it to survive. Some of cholesterol’s jobs are to help control inflammation, produce hormones, repair damage to our blood vessels, help with fat digestion, and many more. Not only do we naturally produce it, but we can also consume cholesterol in our diets from animal proteins. Since cholesterol makes up part of our cells, it also makes up the cells of the animals we eat (meat, fish, dairy, eggs, etc.).
The Breakdown of “Good” vs. “Bad”
I’m sure you’ve heard cholesterol broken down into two categories – “Good” vs. “Bad”. We want to increase the good and decrease the bad, making our Total Cholesterol come in under 200. There is so, so much more to that story.
Total cholesterol does break down into two main categories- HDL (known as the “good”), and LDL (known as the “bad”). The names High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) and Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) refer to the density of the actual cholesterol particle. HDL is, in fact, good. It helps reduce inflammation and remove harmful particles from our bodies.
Now LDL, that’s the one we’ve deemed “bad”. But, there’s more to that story. LDL is made up of 2 different particles. Those particles are either big, fluffy particles that are healthy and healing, or smaller, more dense particles that are harmful and inflammatory. Now, when you get basic bloodwork done, you’re only getting half the story. You’ll see your Total Cholesterol, HDL Cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol. If your Total and LDL cholesterol are high, chances are your Dr. may want to prescribe you a statin to help lower it.
Not so fast. You need to dig deeper. What really matters when looking at your LDL number is how many and how dense they are. You could have a few big, light, fluffy particles which would be OK. Or, you could have a lot of small, dense particles – not OK, this is the stuff that increases your risk of heart attack.
You might have to ask for a different test (called an NMR Lipoprofile Test) to really find out what your LDLs are made of. It’s worth it.
Why Cholesterol is not “Bad” After All
I mentioned earlier that one of cholesterol’s jobs is to help control inflammation. For years, high cholesterol was blamed for causing much of the heart disease in our country. Doctors tend to prescribe statin drugs to anyone with elevated cholesterol without looking into the breakdown of their cholesterol panel and analyzing their diet and exercise routine, as well as their genetic predisposition to high cholesterol. I believe this mindset and these practices have set us back.
More and more research is coming out showing a link between inflammation and heart disease, rather than high cholesterol and heart disease. We know that inflammation is the result of a diet filled with sugar, processed carbs, refined oils, and chemical-rich foods, not healthy fats. And, if cholesterol is responsible for helping to deal with inflammation in the body, then maybe our elevated cholesterol levels are simply a bi-product of our ever-growing inflammation.
Think about it. The more inflammation we have from eating junk, the more cholesterol we will need to deal with that inflammation, thus raising cholesterol levels. But not necessarily the harmful kind. So, it would be beneficial to clean up our diets and eliminate the inflammation in our bodies instead of taking a statin to lower levels of cholesterol that’s just trying to do it’s job.
Should We Eat It?
The short answer: Yes. The longer answer: With anything else, you want to practice moderation. But yes, you can eat foods like eggs, shrimp, meat, butter, and even the occasional slice of (good quality) bacon as a part of a balanced diet. Following a balanced, healthy diet filled with good quality protein, veggies, healthy fats, and fruit and eliminating a low-fat, high carb/sugar diet is the best way to reduce inflammation and practice good heart health.
Basically: Cholesterol is essential to life. It is broken down into different particles, and it is up to you to find out the whole story, not just the general, cliff-notes version from the Dr. Eating cholesterol does not give you heart disease, but eating a low-fat, high carb/sugar, highly processed diet just might.