When most people hear the word cholesterol, they think of an unhealthy, heart disease-causing compound. This is because for so many years, health news has been telling consumers that low cholesterol foods are healthier and better for the heart. However, recent research and recommendations are now telling us that this may not be true, and that cholesterol consumed in moderation may actually be beneficial to health.
So, who’s right?
Before we delve into the cholesterol controversy, it’s important to learn a little about cholesterol. Keep reading to find out what cholesterol is, what it does in the body, and any health effects it may have. Then, after learning these basics, we’ll discuss the cholesterol controversy and you can decide which side you’re on.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty, wax-like substance found in all the cells of the human body. Although your body makes all the cholesterol it needs, it can also be found in certain foods. Animal products like meat, cheese, and egg yolks are some examples of dietary sources of cholesterol.
There are two major types of cholesterol, known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). The HDL cholesterol is considered a “good” cholesterol since it absorbs cholesterol and carries it to the liver where its flushed out of the body. LDL cholesterol on the other hand is the type of cholesterol that contributes to plaques in the blood vessels, and can increase the risk of heart disease.
You need cholesterol in the body for certain processes like hormone and vitamin D production as well as digestion. It’s when too much cholesterol is present in the blood that it can lead to health problems.
Health effects of cholesterol
When LDL cholesterol leads to plaques in the blood vessels, it can increase the risk of heart disease by obstructing blood flow to the body’s tissues. This can cause high blood pressure, heart attacks, and/or strokes. Therefore, it’s important to try to lower LDL cholesterol levels by eating healthier, as well as quitting smoking, since smoking can constrict blood vessels and lead to even greater blood flow problems. A recent study confirms that those with higher LDL cholesterol levels have a higher risk of dying from heart disease than those with lower LDL cholesterol levels.
However, sometimes high cholesterol may be due to more than just poor diet. Other risk factors of high cholesterol include increased age, genetics, or excess weight. But no matter what the cause, you should be sure to have your cholesterol levels tested at least once a year by your healthcare provider. This way you can take action through diet, exercise, and/or medicine to lower your LDL and raise your HDL before any cholesterol issues lead to heart disease or stroke.
Cholesterol: to eat or not to eat?
Because of the potential health effects of high cholesterol levels in the blood, some people have sworn off consuming any cholesterol in the diet. However, some research shows that there may not be a clear connection between consuming dietary cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease. Other more recent research suggests that such a connection may exist after all. This debate is where the cholesterol controversy was born.
Experts recommend that HDL cholesterol levels should be around 40 mg/dL, while LDL cholesterol should be less than 130 mg/dL. And although certain experts may suggest that lowering the LDL to around 70 mg/dL would be optimal, others say that the body needs some cholesterol for brain function. Therefore, if you take away too much LDL cholesterol from the body, you may be essentially starving the brain of cholesterol and increasing risk of cognitive dysfunction.
So, to prevent such health conditions while keeping your heart healthy, some physicians say that instead of cutting saturated fats out of your diet that may increase LDL cholesterol, instead just choose higher quality sources of fat. For example, coconut oil can help increase HDL and make LDL cholesterol less damaging to the body. So use this type of oil for cooking instead of lard or margarine. Also, use olive oil for cooking or flavoring and eat nuts for snacks to increase your intake of anti-inflammatory antioxidants.
With so many experts provide conflicting opinions on the health effects of cholesterol, it can be hard to know who to trust. Additionally, some people are more sensitive to cholesterol than others.
It’s important to be aware of your LDL and HDL cholesterol levels, and stay mindful, whichever side of the debate you land on. The best way to lower your risk of high cholesterol and the heart health risks associated with it is to visit your healthcare provider at least once a year, to have your cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and blood fats checked to make sure you are in a healthy range. If higher numbers are discovered at such visits, you and your doctor can come up with a treatment plan and follow-up regimen that works best for you in helping you to lower your blood cholesterol and lower your risk of heart disease.