Cholesterol has been a highly publicised scapegoat for causing heart disease for decades, and many have diligently cut all cholesterol-rich foods (which are often also nutrient-rich foods) from their diets as a result.
Others have opted to take cholesterol-lowering statin drugs prescribed their physicians. Is it the villain that’s it’s portrayed to be, silently clogging up your arteries and putting you at a dangerously high risk of heart attack, one cholesterol-laden egg yolk at a time? The answer is, for most people, “NO”.
Cholesterol in foods isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The body has very important uses for cholesterol: It is found in every cell membrane and is used to make essential nutrients and hormones, like estrogen, testosterone and vitamin D. In fact, cholesterol is so important that our body has figured out a way to make its own supply even if we’re not eating cholesterol-containing foods. Many of the healthiest foods happen to be rich in cholesterol (and saturated fats), yet cholesterol has been demonized.
The biggest factor in cholesterol is not diet but genetics or heredity. Your liver is designed to remove excess cholesterol from your body, but genetics play a large part in your liver’s ability to regulate cholesterol to a healthy level.
Take, for instance, people with genetic familial hypercholesterolemia. This is a condition characterized by abnormally high cholesterol, which tends to be resistant to lowering with lifestyle strategies like diet and exercise.
Further, eating nutritious cholesterol-rich foods is not something you should feel guilty about; they’re good for you and will not drive up your cholesterol levels as you may have been told. It’s estimated that only 20 percent of your blood cholesterol levels come from your diet.
Cholesterol and heart disease.
Cholesterol and fat don’t dissolve in water or blood. Instead, the body packages these two nutrients into tiny, protein-covered lipoproteins that are able to easily mix with blood and transport fat throughout the body.
You likely recognize these lipoproteins at the labs after your blood testss as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and they both travel within the bloodstream to carry out different functions:
LDL is the “bad” cholesterol. It is what links cholesterol to heart disease risk. This lipoprotein transports cholesterol to the rest of the body. It travels to cells that need it, delivers the goods and makes its way back to the liver. However, LDL’s traveling in the bloodstream can get sidetracked, becoming trapped in plaques along artery walls. Over time, this increases our risk for heart disease.
HDL is the “good” cholesterol. It scavenges excess cholesterol from the bloodstream and carries it back to the liver for disposal. Having higher HDL means you’re more likely to dispose of excess cholesterol you don’t need so there’s less of it circulating in the blood.
In general, the lower your LDL and higher your HDL, the better your chances of preventing heart disease and other chronic conditions.
How to Protect Your Heart Health
These are some of my top recommendations:
Reduce, with the plan of eliminating, grains and sugars in your diet. It is vitally important to eliminate gluten-containing grains and sugars, especially fructose.
Consume a good portion of your food raw.
Make sure you are getting plenty of high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fats, which may improve your total cholesterol and triglycerides and will likely increase your HDL cholesterol.
Replace harmful vegetable oils and synthetic trans fats with healthy fats, such as olive oil, butter, avocado, pastured eggs and coconut oil (remember olive oil should be used cold only, use coconut oil for cooking and baking).
Include fermented foods in your daily diet.
Optimize your vitamin D levels, ideally through appropriate sun exposure as this will allow your body to also create vitamin D.
Exercise regularly. Make sure you incorporate high-intensity interval exercises, which also optimize your human growth hormone (HGH) production.
Avoid smoking or drinking alcohol excessively.
Be sure to get plenty of high-quality, restorative sleep.
Practice regular stress-management techniques.