Cholesterol isn't always bad for you. This video can help you understand this sticky topic.
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Understanding cholesterol can be tricky. You've probably heard a lot about it...and so you may think cholesterol is always "bad" for you. But the truth is: cholesterol plays an essential role in keeping us healthy.
Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance that's found in every one of our cells. Our bodies use it for many things, like forming cell membranes, producing Vitamin D and other hormones, and even making bile acids that help us digest foods.
Cholesterol travels around the body through the vascular system. But blood is watery, and cholesterol is fatty and, just like oil and water, they don't mix well. So to circulate in the bloodstream properly, cholesterol is carried in small bundles called lipoproteins that are made of fat (also called "lipids") on the inside and proteins on the outside.
There are different kinds of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol. We're going to talk about the two main ones. Stick with me now....Here comes the heart of the story.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is the "bad" kind of cholesterol. It carries most of the cholesterol in the blood and delivers it throughout the body. High levels of LDL can lead to cholesterol deposits in the vascular walls, creating plaques that sometimes narrow or even totally block blood vessels. That's called atherosclerosis (or hardening of the arteries) and it's why this kind of cholesterol is "bad". The higher the LDL level, the greater your chance of having a heart attack, stroke or developing several other serious conditions.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is the "good" kind of cholesterol. HDL helps clear cholesterol, carrying it back to your liver where the liver removes it from your body. That's REALLY good. Having high HDL levels usually protects you from developing cardiovascular disease.
This is where the plot thickens. Some people can have high HDL levels and still be at risk for heart disease because the HDL is dysfunctional....It doesn't work right.
The cholesterol in our bloodstream comes from two sources. About 75% is produced by our own liver and about 25% comes from foods we eat that are from animals. Actually, our bodies naturally produce all the cholesterol we need for normal functioning, but sometimes, genetics can cause us to produce too much of the "bad" kind or too little of the "good" kind...or the kind that just doesn't work properly. In addition to any inherited predisposition, other factors that can influence our cholesterol production that we cannot change are age and gender. There is a shift towards worse cholesterol numbers as we get older.
As a Registered Dietician, here's what I tell my patients: Stop smoking, lose weight (even a little can make a big difference!), and exercise (just 30 minutes a day of moderate activity can help). Eat a diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and high-fiber foods like oatmeal, and certain fish or other foods that contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Steer clear of saturated fats like those found in red meats, full-fat dairy products, and transfats that are in some store-bought baked goods. There are also medicines (such as statins) that can help you reach recommended cholesterol levels.
It's important to regularly have your doctor do a simple blood test (called a 'lipoprotein profile') to see "what's up".
Having cholesterol levels in check is essential for good health at any age.
1. Wholegrain cereals for coronary heart disease Sarah AM Kelly1, Carolyn D Summerbell, Audrey Brynes, Victoria Whittaker, Gary Frost, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD005051. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD005051.pub2.
2. Cholesterol Efflux Capacity, High-Density Lipoprotein Function, and Atherosclerosis, Amit V. Khera, M.D., Marina Cuchel, M.D., Ph.D., Margarita de la Llera-Moya, Ph.D., Amrith Rodrigues, M.S., Megan F. Burke, B.A., Kashif Jafri, B.A., Benjamin C. French, Ph.D., Julie A. Phillips, Ph.D., Megan L. Mucksavage, M.Sc., Robert L. Wilensky, M.D., Emile R. Mohler, M.D., George H. Rothblat, Ph.D., and Daniel J. Rader, M.D., N Engl J Med 2011;364:127-35.