Cholesterol and Fat - Friend or Foe?

In today's Nutritional Therapy blog, we will look at cholesterol and fat in our diets. Many people believe that eating foods with cholesterol and fat, especially saturated fat, causes heart attacks; but is this really true?

One of the biggest myths that nutritional therapists come across every day is that dietary fat and cholesterol levels are the number one enemy and that heart attacks are caused by a high-fat diet. Although study after study after study often shows no link between total fat, saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, and heart disease; the media, most doctors and traditional health advisors are still recommending that we cut all fat and cholesterol from our diet

Most of us have heard of cholesterol, triglycerides, HDL and LDL, yet many do not have a proper understanding of their function. In today's nutrition blog, I will set out to explain them in as simple a manner as possible, to enable you to better understand your own blood test results.

...it is clear from a nutritional standpoint, that a fat-free diet cannot possibly promote optimal health.

What are lipoproteins?

Lipoproteins are like microscopic taxi drivers that shuttle cholesterol and triglyceride (fat) molecules through the blood stream from place to place. LDLs (Low-Density Lipoproteins) are the smaller cousins of HDLs (High-Density Lipoproteins).

· LDLs are responsible for delivering cholesterol to the cells. Sometimes the LDL does not make it to its destination and instead sticks to the walls of your arteries.

· HDLs carry excess cholesterol back to the liver, thus preventing excess LDL cholesterol from sticking to the walls of your arteries.

What is Cholesterol?

  • Cholesterol is a wax-like fatty substance, found in almost every cell of our bodies.
  • About 75% of cholesterol is made in our liver. In other words, very little of the cholesterol measured in the blood comes from what we eat.
  • Cholesterol is so vital to our health, that our bodies actually make it.
  • If we had no cholesterol in the body we would be dead. Cholesterol is important for cell structure, bone structure, muscles, hormones, brain function (25% of cholesterol is found in the brain) and nerve endings.
  • All steroid hormones in the body (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, pregnenolone etc.) are made from cholesterol.
  • In your brain and nerve tissues, cholesterol is required for the formation of the myelin sheath, a fatty material that surrounds long portions of nerve fibres.
  • Cholesterol is necessary to produce vitamin D.
  • Bile salts, which break down carbohydrates, fats and protein are created with cholesterol.
  • Mothers' breast milk is 60% cholesterol. It is necessary for the development of the baby’s brain and nervous system.
  • When damage and inflammation occur in blood vessels, it is cholesterol which rushes to the site to repair the damage.
  • Cholesterol acts as an antioxidant to protect cells and tissues from free radical damage.

When we consider all these important roles that cholesterol plays in our health and well-being, it is clear from a nutritional standpoint, that a fat-free diet cannot possibly promote optimal health.

There is no such thing as 'good' cholesterol and 'bad' cholesterol. Cholesterol is cholesterol!

What are Triglycerides?

  • Tryglicerides are fat molecules in the blood. They are the main form of fat in the body.
  • The fat contained in the food we eat consists of large molecules, which the body breaks down into triglycerides.
  • Any extra protein, fats or carbs in the food we eat, that does not get used up by the body right away, is converted into triglycerides.
  •  Like cholesterol, triglycerides are transported around by lipoproteins.
  • When we think of excess fat developing around the hips or belly, we are thinking of triglycerides.
  •  High triglyceride levels can increase the risk of heart disease.

It is important to understand:

There is no such thing as 'good' cholesterol and 'bad' cholesterol. Cholesterol is cholesterol! 

Cholesterol is made up of carbon molecules, hydrogen molecules and oxygen. There is no good or bad version of this.  

It is also important to understand that HDL is not 'good' cholesterol and LDL is not 'bad' cholesterol. They are not cholesterol at all; they are lipoproteins (there are, by the way, other lipoproteins such as VLDL – Very Low Density Lipoproteins). As we have learned, lipoproteins are taxi drivers that ‘schlepp’ cholesterol and triglycerides (as well as proteins and phospholipids) around the blood stream.  

The reason LDL is considered ‘bad’ is because of its low density. It is smaller and more capable of getting stuck in arteries. HDL is, as the name suggests, high density and is considered good because its function is to ‘mop up’ the deposited excess cholesterol and take it back to the liver. This is where SIZE MATTERS. THE BIGGER, THE BETTER. The smaller the particle, the more likely it is to make its way into the arterial wall and get stuck. Once stuck it has a greater chance of being a risk for heart disease.

Not everyone with a high level of LDL suffers a heart attack or stroke. Only 50% of people with coronary artery disease have high levels of LDL. People with high VLDL levels have a greater risk of heart disease. Thus, when it comes to testing (which will be discussed later in the month), the particle size of the LDL is a greater indication of risk for cardiovascular disease.

Our bodies make cholesterol. Statins prevent the body from producing the cholesterol it is designed to make.

Statins literally stop one of our fundamental processes from functioning. I will be weighing up and debating the scientific evidence on statins later this month.

“Cholesterol in food has no impact on cholesterol in the blood and we have known that all along.” Ancel Keys.

Please head on over to TT Tips for some practical nutrition ideas on maintaining a healthy fat and cholesterol balance.

If you would like to learn about LDL and HDL in more detail, here is a great website which I think very clearly explains their role in our health.