Mr. Misunderstood: Cholesterol

Since being linked to coronary heart diseases over a century ago, cholesterol has forever been named the supervillain of the food industry. It’s also been commonly known as the “silent killer” because the majority of diagnosis go untreated until it’s too late. However, since the first study in 1910, many new findings have been made about cholesterol and its effects on coronary heart diseases. It would seem that cholesterol has been plagued with a bad reputation for centuries and hasn’t had a fair chance to plead it’s innocence. Therefore, perhaps it’s time we let cholesterol tell its own story for once.

What is cholesterol?

It’s surprising how many people aren’t aware that cholesterol is a natural molecule produced by the body. Unlike common belief, the majority of one’s cholesterol is actually produced by the body and not consumed from the food we eat. A lipid made by the liver, cholesterol has many important functions in the body. It is necessary for the production of hormones, cell membranes and digestion of food. Therefore, it is ESSENTIAL for life.

So if it’s important for our survival, why is it labeled bad? Well, since cholesterol is a fat, it doesn’t mix well with our blood. Similarly to how oil doesn’t mix well with water. Therefore, cholesterol needs to be transported via special transporters known as high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). These two transporters have been named “good” and “bad” cholesterol. In fact, these aren’t theoretically cholesterol but “cholesterol transporters”. HDL acts similar to a janitor by picking up the excess cholesterol in the bloodstream to transport it to the liver in order to get processed. That’s why it’s been named “good cholesterol”. Meanwhile LDL, aka “bad cholesterol” does the opposite by transporting cholesterol from the liver to the rest of the body. Since LDL jams up our bloodstream with cholesterol, it’s been linked to plaque buildup leading to blockage of blood flow and coronary heart diseases.

What is high cholesterol?

There’s no hiding the fact that close to 1 in 3 North Americans have high cholesterol and that it’s one of the leading causes of coronary heart diseases. Health organizations state high cholesterol levels to be above 240 mg/dL or 6.2 mmol/L. While normal levels are between 150-200 mg/dL or 4.0-5.2 mmol/L. To lower one’s risk of coronary heart diseases, research shows that levels equal to or below 150 mg/dL or 4.0 mmol/L are ideal.

Knowing these facts and numbers are great but they aren’t helping solve the problem. We need to dig deeper and understand what actually causes one to have high cholesterol in the first place.

The causes of high cholesterol

Is it high cholesterol foods?

1973! Yes, 1973 was when the American Heart Association decided that people should limit their egg intake because they have high levels of cholesterol in them. It was like saying “carrots are orange and I don’t want to turn orange so I won’t eat carrots…” Eggs are just an obvious example, but do high cholesterol foods actually have an effect on our cholesterol levels?

Contrary to common belief, the myth that high cholesterol foods cause individuals to have high cholesterol levels aren’t accurate. Since the body produces cholesterol on its own, it actually adapts the level of secretion based on dietary intake. Recent studies have concluded that foods high in processed carbohydrates, trans fats, saturated fats, sodium, and sugars are the culprits. That being said, the majority of these types of foods also have high levels of cholesterol in them which is why it was assumed that high cholesterol foods were the problem.

Weirdly enough, out of all the processed junk foods people have consumed over the years, eggs are the ONLY foods the AHA has ever suggested to limit. Unfortunately, because eggs are linked with the unpopular cholesterol, it also got a bad rap. In fact, eggs have been proven to be a great source of protein and healthy fats, which are both underlying factors for lowering cholesterol. People still have the notion that eggs are bad even though this research was done 45 years ago. It’s similar to thinking that smoking isn’t bad for your health because it wasn’t a concern 50 years ago.

If we take a step back and look at the typical North American diet, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of it consists of high processed, sugary foods. Therefore, we should be aiming to limit all the processed and sugary foods we are eating rather than worrying about how many eggs we are consuming. Eliminating the processed cereal and toast instead of those healthy eggs might be a better idea!

Obesity and Lack of Physical Activity

As mentioned above, diet plays a major role in controlling your cholesterol level yet it isn’t the only factor. Obesity and the lack of physical activity have also been linked to high cholesterol levels. Therefore, individuals who aren’t reaching the recommended 150 mins of intense physical activity per week are also at risk of higher cholesterol levels and coronary heart diseases. More often than not, these individuals also have bad lifestyle habits such as poor diets, smoking, high alcohol consumption, and terrible sleep hygiene. All of these are also leading causes of obesity and are part of a vicious cycle. If you haven’t noticed yet, all these factors go hand in hand and are all linked to increasing your risk to high cholesterol levels and coronary heart diseases.

Genetics

I know you’re thinking about it so we may as well touch on it! Known as familial hypercholesterolemia, it is true that some people are predisposed in producing more cholesterol than others. Unfortunately, these individuals have been dealt a bad hand of genetics and are at higher risk of high cholesterol. However, this condition doesn’t guarantee that they’ll have high cholesterol levels! Many individuals with this condition have normal cholesterol levels.  Unfortunate for them, they need to put the extra work into preventative measures. As unfair as it is, it’s reality and this condition shouldn’t be an excuse for not trying! If we combine bad genetics, poor diet and lack of physical activity, it’s a trifecta for coronary heart diseases!

Now that you are aware of the causes high cholesterol, you’re probably wondering what can be done to lower it or prevent it?

How can we lower cholesterol?

You may have heard a baby boomer tell you that the secret to lowering your cholesterol is adding flax or blueberries to your morning cereal. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to lowering your cholesterol. The fact of the matter is, foods like flax and blueberries can help lower your cholesterol because of the nutrients you are adding to your diet. Yet, it’s not the specific food, but the TYPE of food. Simply put, if you’ve always consumed high processed, high trans fats, high sugary foods and suddenly add in a few healthy options like flax and blueberries, they’re most likely beneficial to your health! You’ve just added necessary fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals to your diet! Therefore, baby boomers weren’t all that wrong after all!

However, adding specific cholesterol lowering foods will only maintain the problem, NOT FIX IT. It would be similar to continually adding air to a flat tire! Sure you can drive with it for a while but you haven’t fixed the problem. Instead, change the tire! If you didn’t understand the analogy, the tire represents your lifestyle….

In the end, It’s your LIFESTYLE that will keep your cholesterol levels safe. People need to be educated and realize that it’s not specifically the high cholesterol foods putting them at risk but all their bad lifestyle habits. Simply put, they need to focus on the big picture. This includes proper diet, enough physical activity, and good lifestyle habits. We can’t simply choose one of these and do them. We need to do them all in harmony! Starting with small steps in each category will help lower your risk of chronic diseases. After all, maybe cholesterol isn’t the villain but simply the nerdy kid in the corner who’s misunderstood.

Cheers,

Paul Bissonnette B. Kin, CSEP-CEP, NSCA-CSCS, FMSC, Pn1


References

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