You probably already know that cholesterol is: it’s a type of waxy fat found in your body’s blood cells. If it builds up, it can block your arteries.
But did you know that your body needs some cholesterol to make hormones and vitamin D? It also uses cholesterol to protect nerves, build muscle, and make cell tissues.
Your liver makes cholesterol, but you can also get it from foods you eat. Some foods raise your cholesterol, other foods lower it.
Some cholesterol is “good”, and some of it is “bad”, which is why there is so much confusion around this important molecule.
Myth #1: “Cholesterol” is cholesterol
Not all forms of cholesterol are created equal. Cholesterol contains compounds which contain 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.
- 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 oxidized hence their “badness”).
A good way to remember good and bad cholesterol is this: The “H” in HDL stands for Healthy. The “L” in LDL stands for Lousy.
But it’s even more complicated than this. Each of these two categories is further broken down into subcategories which can also be measured in a blood test.
Cholesterol 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 and helps with muscle growth.
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 absolutely not the only thing to consider for heart health.
Myth #3: Eating cholesterol increases your bad cholesterol
Most of the cholesterol in your blood is made by your liver. It’s actually not from the cholesterol you eat. Why do you think cholesterol medications block an enzyme in your liver (HMG Co-A reductase, to be exact)? ‘Cause that’s where it’s made!
What you eat can affect how much cholesterol your liver produces. After a cholesterol-rich meal, your liver doesn’t need to make as much.
Myth #4: Your cholesterol 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 on your health journey.
People with too-low levels of cholesterol have an increased risk of death from other non-heart-related issues like certain types of cancers, as well as suicide.
Myth #5: Drugs are the only way to get a good cholesterol balance
Don’t start or stop any medications without first discussing it with your doctor.
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, baby!
One of the most impactful ways to lower your cholesterol is to eat lots of fruits and veggies. Like 10 servings a day. Every day. And if this seems daunting to you, I recommend you sign up for my Green Smoothie Challenge. It’s totally free and an easy and delicious way to get your fruits and vegetables in.
You also want to limit drinks and foods that have a lot of sugar. Diets high in sugar are believed to lower healthy HDL cholesterol – the “Healthy” cholesterol.
Eat a cup of whole grains each day, and a cup of legumes: these foods work to scrub the plaque from your arteries.
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 from fried and processed foods. Studies show that diets high in fats tend to increase levels of bad LDL cholesterol.
p.s. Eggs may not be as “bad” for you as once believed. In this 12-week study, subjects ate 3 eggs a day for 12 weeks. There were no effects on blood pressure or markers of diabetes, inflammation, or cholesterol from eating 252 whole eggs.
The science of cholesterol and heart health is complicated and we’re learning more each day. At one time, we believed that eggs were bad for us simply because they contained cholesterol. Regardless, the basics of good health never change: maintain a healthy body weight, exercise, limit your intake of sugar and processed foods, and eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. There is a lot you can do from a nutrition and lifestyle perspective to improve your cholesterol levels and health.
Salad Dressing Recipe: Orange Hemp Seed Dressing
Makes about ¾ cup
½ cup hemp seeds
½ cup orange juice
1 clove of garlic, peeled
dash salt and/or pepper
Blend all ingredients together until creamy.
Serve on top of your favorite salad and Enjoy!
Tip: Store extra in an airtight container in the fridge. The dressing will keep for about a week.