Cholesterol Levels: 5 Myths and What to Eat Instead
Cholesterol Levels: Five Myths and What to Eat Instead
At this time of midlife, cholesterol levels appear much more on our radar.
Even if you’re not sure exactly what it is, you will probably know that high cholesterol levels can clog up your arteries, leading to increased risks of heart disease, strokes, dementia and type 2 diabetes
I confess I didn’t really take a personal interest in cholesterol levels until recently. I was interested in it from a health, disease and nutrition point of view and there’s always plenty of media coverage around cholesterol, but that was about it.
But then my husband went for a blood test, for something completely unrelated, and was told that his cholesterol level was higher than ideal. It wasn’t high enough to warrant further action but it got me looking more closely at cholesterol and what can be done about it. And out came my old MSc notes too!
So, before we jump into some related myths let's start with the first one to make sure we're on the same page when it comes to what exactly cholesterol is.
Myth #1: “Cholesterol” is cholesterol
While cholesterol is an actual molecule, what it is bound to while it's floating through your blood, is what's more important than just how much of it there is overall. In fact depending on what it's combined with can have opposite effects on your arteries and heart.
So cholesterol is just one component of a compound that floats around your blood. These compounds contain cholesterol as well as fats and special proteins called “lipoproteins”.
They're grouped into two main categories:
HDL: High Density Lipoprotein (AKA “good” cholesterol) that “cleans up” some of those infamous “arterial plaques” and transports cholesterol back to the liver so it can be excreted in bile.
LDL: Low Density Lipoprotein (AKA “bad” cholesterol) that transports cholesterol from the liver (and is the kind found to accumulate in arteries and become easily oxidised hence their “bad” label).
And yes, it's even more complicated than this. Each of these categories is further broken down into subcategories which can also be measured in a blood test. And the way they are transported around the body and processed are different.
Generally, cholesterol levels increase with age and also with a higher waist measurement i.e. belly fat. Fat around the middle can lead to reduced levels of HDL cholesterol, which causes an increase in the triglyceride to HDL cholesterol ratio. This means that any actions designed to tackle the midlife weight gain around the middle is going to be beneficial.
So “cholesterol” isn't simply cholesterol because it has very different effects on your body depending on which other molecules it's bound to in your blood and what it is actually doing there.
Myth #2: Cholesterol is bad
Cholesterol is absolutely necessary for your body to produce critical things like vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun, your sex hormones (e.g. estrogen and testosterone), as well as bile to help you absorb dietary fats. Not to mention that it's incorporated into the membranes of your cells.
Talk about an important molecule!
The overall amount of cholesterol in your blood (AKA “total cholesterol”) isn't nearly as important as how much of each kind you have in your blood.
While way too much LDL cholesterol as compared with HDL (the LDL:HDL ratio) may be associated with an increased risk of heart disease it is not the only thing to consider for heart health.
Myth #3: Eating cholesterol increases your bad cholesterol levels
Most of the cholesterol in your blood is made by your liver. It's actually not from the cholesterol you eat. Only about 20% of our cholesterol is derived from the diet. Why do you think cholesterol medications block an enzyme in your liver (HMG Co-A reductase, to be exact)? Because that's where it's made!
What you eat still can affect how much cholesterol your liver produces. After a cholesterol-rich meal your liver doesn't need to make as much.
It’s more important to check the amount of trans-fats you’re eating. These tend to be in processed foods such as crackers, pastries and baked products. This is because trans-fats and saturated fats alter the way in which the liver takes up LDL particles.
A word about coconut oil which is a saturated fat, high in lauric acid. Studies suggest an increase in coconut oil consumption does increase total cholesterol levels. But it’s effect is to raise HDL which is beneficial!
Myth #4: Your cholesterol levels should be as low as possible
As with almost everything in health and wellness there's a balance that needs to be maintained. There are very few extremes that are going to serve you well.
While it’s fairly rare, data suggests an association between too-low levels of cholesterol and an increased risk of anxiety and depression, hormonal and brain problems.
Myth #5: Drugs are the only way to get a good cholesterol balance
Don't start or stop any medications without talking with your doctor.
And while drugs can certainly lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol they don't seem to be able to raise the “good” HDL cholesterol all that well.
Guess what does?
Nutrition and exercise!
One of the most impactful ways to lower your cholesterol with diet is to eat lots of fruits and veggies. I mean lots, say up to 10 servings a day. Every day.
Don't worry, if you’re receiving the Midlife Menu blog every week you’ll see this week’s recipe should help you add at least another salad to your day.
You can (should?) also exercise, lose weight, stop smoking and eat better quality fats. That means fatty fish, avocados and olive oil. Ditch those over-processed hydrogenated “trans” fats.
3 ways to support your cholesterol levels
The science of cholesterol levels and heart health is complicated and we're learning more every day. But try implementing some of the following easy steps into your daily life:
Exercise regularly – start gradually and build up. Try to fit it into your day (functional fitness) rather than expecting yourself to carve out more time in the day for a formal session.
Eat loads more veggies and fruit. At every meal or snack can you sneak in any more fruit and veg?
Work at reducing processed foods with trans fats and reduce refined carbs and sugar where possible.
The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this blog are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this blog. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this blog. Midlife Menu Ltd disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this blog.