Cholesterol is a fat-like, waxy substance that your liver makes, and that you get from certain foods you eat. Cholesterol- in the right amounts and ratios–is very important for your health! Before we get into the tips, we need to first understand what cholesterol is. Let’s dive in.
What are the types of cholesterol?
There are two key different types of cholesterol that we hear about: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is often referred to as the “bad cholesterol” due to its formation of plaques, while HDL (which comes from fatty fish) is called the “helpful/good cholesterol” because of its role as an anti-inflammatory, and remover of LDL. If we zoom in even a little more, we will see that there are different types of LDL. There is small dense LDL cholesterol (which come from carbohydrates, not fats), and small dense LDL (the particle that contributes to plaque formation).
But here’s the real cincher—another byproduct of carbohydrates is triglycerides which are a better predictor of heart disease than the other cholesterol markers. Triglyceride formations are what your liver makes when exposed to sugar—the real problem is not fat, it’s sugar and later we’ll see its inflammation.
What is saturated fat?
Saturated fats are those that come from animal-based foods such as beef, poultry, pork, and non-animal based products such as coconut oil. These fats are solid at room temperature. Too many saturated fats can increase your LDL and therefore risk of heart disease and other illnesses. We need saturated fats, but the source and amount matters. Saturated fats from plant-sources tend to be better than those from animal sources. Try to aim for about 13 grams of saturated fat/day.
What are unsaturated fats?
Unsaturated fats such as monounsaturated fats are health promoting as they can help reduce LDL in your blood thus reducing your risk of heart disease. These fats are liquid at room temperature. Examples of monounsaturated fats are those from nuts (such as peanuts, almonds, cashews and walnuts), avocados, and plant-based oils (such as olive oil and canola oil).
What are polyunsaturated fats?
These types of fats are essential fats, meaning your body cannot make them. The most important type of polyunsaturated fat is omega 3 fatty acids, which protects your mind, brain, heart and cells. Sources of omega 3 fatty acids include fatty fish (salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel), oysters, chia seeds, and flax seeds. These should be a staple in your diet as they reduce inflammation, increase HDL, and are very protective of your health overall.
What is cholesterol used for in our bodies?
The main jobs of cholesterol include:
- Building the membranes around our cells
- Maintaining the health of our cells
- Is a precursor for making certain nutrients (such as vitamin D), bile acids (which the liver makes to help you digest fats), and steroid hormones (such as progesterone, estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol)
You need cholesterol to survive and be healthy. However, if your levels are too low, you won’t be able to build your cells properly, or make particular vitamins, or hormones. Signs you’re not getting enough fat in your diet: Depression, anxiety, brain fog, digestive upset, muscle pain, swollen gums, dry hair, loose teeth, and easy bruising.
Why does cholesterol get a bad rap?
Around the 1960s, the advisory panel for nutrition guidelines in the United States released a warning about eating cholesterol-heavy food. Traditionally it was recommended that total cholesterol levels should stay at or below 300 mg/day to prevent heart disease (which according to VOX is about an egg and a half). However, around 1987 pharmaceutical company, Merck, released lovastatin (a cholesterol lowering medication) into the market and following this time we saw recommended reference ranges for cholesterol trending towards lower levels. Even now, you may see your blood test reference range for total cholesterol as <199. This trend was not without its negative effects. In a gross oversight by The American College of Cardiology, cholesterol was assigned blame for heart disease and stroke risk.
In recent years, scientists have been going back to the old ‘cholesterol hypothesis’ research, and are arriving at quite different conclusions. It appears that some of the evidence that looked significant (in rabbit studies by the way), doesn’t line up with what we are finding in modern medical research.
So, what’s the real problem here?
It turns out that the issues attributed to cholesterol levels such as heart disease and plaque build-up were not necessarily due to cholesterol. The real culprit was and still is: Inflammation. We’ve known for over two decades that inflammation levels are associated with higher risk of heart disease, mood issues, stroke, and a myriad of other concerns.
Let’s myth-bust the cholesterol inflammation myth here once and for all. Inflammation is the body’s response to an infection, injury, and its job is to protect the body and eliminate whatever is causing disease. Inflammation is a necessary part of the healing process, however, if the root-cause(s) of inflammation are not treated, unchecked inflammation can cause a domino of health issues.
Inflammation in your blood vessels are breeding grounds for plaque build-up. Along its journeys through your blood vessels to making hormones, vitamins and cell membranes, cholesterol sometimes encounters inflamed blood vessel walls. The inflammation is “sticky” which attracts the cholesterol to adhere to that blood vessel, the accumulation of cholesterol forms a plaque which can ultimately clog or block the flow of blood.
How can I attain optimal cholesterol levels?
First of all, there are tests that can look at your cholesterol microparticles. My favorite is the VAP Cholesterol Test. Remember, cholesterol is essential for health, and in order to optimize this you are going to want to do three things:
- Emphasize eating fats that contain lots of HDL cholesterol- I like to see HDL levels over 75.
- Limit sources of small dense LDL- It is noteworthy that there is no consensus on how to define very low LDL, but a good starting point is that too-low would be <40 milligrams per deciliter of blood. Too low LDL can cause depression, anxiety, and other health issues.
- Keep inflammation low- Is there ever too little inflammation? Yes! Remember inflammation is part of how your immune system works, but too high inflammation over time can lead to a myriad of health issues head to toe.
Foods to focus on:
- Fatty fish that is rich in omega 3 fatty acids
- Olives, olive oil, and avocados are all rich source in healthy fats
Foods to limit
- Animal-based fats, saturated fats, alcohol, carbohydrates and sugars.
The Bottom Line
Your body needs fat and for optimal health focus on monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats from fatty fish, nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil.
Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational free resources, online courses, and membership group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.