Cholesterol – The ‘misunderstood’ nutrient

High cholesterol levels affects millions of people worldwide and it is looked upon with dread!Cholesterol is always regarded as a bad stuff and there are plenty of misconceptions /myths associated with it. Before I go any further let us see what cholesterol is.

It is a soft waxy substance found among the other lipids in the blood stream and in all the cells of the body.It is an important part of a healthy body as it has several functions to perform and yet high levels of this can lead to life threatening conditions like coronary heart disease and stroke.

The body uses cholesterol to

• synthesize Vitamin D
• Build structure of cell membranes
• Make hormones likes estrogen, testosterone, and adrenal hormone
• Helps to produce bile which is needed to digest fats and to absorb nutrients.

As often considered, the source of cholesterol is not from food alone! There are two places from where cholesterol can come from-Food and from the body. It would be surprising to know that 75% of the cholesterol comes from our body which is made by the liver and other cells and the remaining 25% of from the food we eat.

The liver produces around 1,000mg cholesterol per day which is the amount the body requires. Apart from this depending on our diet we get an additional 200-500mg cholesterol from the food we eat.

Cholesterol has 3 components – LDL,HDL and triglycerides. When we go for a blood test to check the cholesterol levels these three readings are quite important.

LDL cholesterol or Low density lipo protein is the bad guy in the family also known by the name - bad cholesterol. Though LDL cholesterol is produced by the body,this can also be an inherited trait.

When too much of this builds up,it combines with other substances and builds up in the inner walls of arteries leading to the heart and brain. When this happens, a clot is formed and leads to heart attack / stroke.

HDL cholesterol or High density lipo protein is the most desirable guy in this family! This is also called Good cholesterol. High levels[ above 40mg/dL] of HDL is said to protect us against heart attacks. HDL cholesterol is believed to carry away the cholesterol away from the arteries and prevents accumulation.

Triglyceride is also the fat that is made in the body. High triglyceride levels can be due to obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, excess alcohol consumption and a diet in high carbohydrate content. Some people with heart disease and diabetic patients have a high triglyceride levels. If the blood test shows a high triglyceride level then obviously it will represent a high LDL level and low HDL level.

Lp(a) is a genetic variation of LDL cholesterol. Higher Lp(a) levels indicates the risk of development of fatty deposits in the arteries.

Eating too much cholesterol laden foods[ having saturated fatty foods, trans fatty foods],defective life style, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of exercise all leads to the increase of the undesirable cholesterol levels and a decrease in HDL levels.

The intake limit of cholesterol per day for a person with normal LDL level is less than 300 mg.

There are a few misconceptions regarding cholesterol. Here they are.

• ‘Cholesterol’ is a fearful term and is bad new-Nope, this is term has two parts – the good and the bad and as long as you know which level should be high and which to cut down it is not all that fearful!
• People who are thin often think that they will never face a high cholesterol profile. The body build has nothing to do with the cholesterol level in the body. But heavy built people are more likely to have high cholesterol levels but that does not mean that others can stay away from the annual health check-ups. What ever be the body build, it is advisable to have regular check ups and eat wisely.
• When people are on a drug therapy for elevated cholesterol levels, they often relax thinking that all the work is done. Along with the drugs it is very essential to follow a healthy diet and regular exercise.
• Most women think that cholesterol is a ‘men only’ term.There is good news and ‘need to know’ news here. The good news is that women are protected against high LDL levels due to the female hormone ‘estrogen’. The other news is that is that this good news is applicable only to premenopausal women. Earlier in life, estrogen keeps the HDL level high and protects women from heart diseases. But when increase levels of cholesterol runs in the family care needs to be taken. As women age and in the post menopausal period, women are as much prone as men to build up high cholesterol levels. Hence women too need to make the proper dietary and life style modifications, exercise along with regular blood test.
• It is not true that only adults can have high cholesterol levels. Children who come from families that have obese members / high cholesterol levels are more at risk of developing high cholesterol levels at an early age when compared to the other children. In such cases, parents must provide a diet with low cholesterol, low saturated fats, low trans fats and ensure that the children get adequate exercise.
• If a food is labeled as ‘low cholesterol’ it does not mean it is very safe. It may still contain trans fats which may raise the cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol and diet

Actually,the body makes all the cholesterol it need and hence there is no need to supply from the outside source. But since the food we eat contains cholesterol in varying degrees we just have to be wise in choosing the right foods so as to maintain a healthy cholesterol level.It is better to limit the intake of cholesterol to 300mg or lesser per day [for a person with normal LDL level]

Saturated fats and trans fats are in a way responsible in raising the blood cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol in foods

Eggs,animal products and dairy foods are rich in fat.All foods from animal have some amount of cholesterol in them.Eggs have around 200-250mg cholesterol but they need not be avoided by healthy people with normal cholesterol levels. Seafoods ,apart from having cholesterol also has some heathly omega 3 fatty acids and hence they too can be included but the fried version can better be avoided.

Other foods that you may want to restrict
• Fatty meats
• Full fat dairy products
• Processed meats like salami and sausages
• Snack foods like chips and other deep fried items
• Takeaway foods and restaurant foods, for you are not sure which type of oil or food stuff that went into the dish you ordered.
• Cakes, biscuits and pastries.

Foods from plants do not contain cholesterol. You can include these food stuffs.

• Poly unsaturated oils like sunflower oil,safflower seeds and canola oils are said to lower LDL levels.
• Oats and legumes
• Foods containing saponins are found in chickpea,alfalfa sprouts and sulfur containing foods like onion,garlic etc are said to aid in lowering the cholesterol levels.
• Plant sterols are found in sunflower seeds,canola seeds,vegetable seeds,nuts,legumes,cereals,fruits and vegetables may be included which reduces the LDL levels.

Factors affecting cholesterol level in the body:

1. Smoking: Apart from causing other health risks ,smoking lowers the HDL levels and increases the chance of blood clot.
2. Alcohol: It is said that moderate consumption of alcohol reduces the chances of heart diseases but how much is the moderate level? Well, this has to be decided by your physician. Moderate alcohol consumption is related to increase in HDL levels. Excess consumption of alcohol leads to obesity, stroke and heart diseases.
3. Physical activity: Physical activity increases the HDL level

Cholesterol,other types of fat and related facts that are a risk for heart diseases will also be discussed in the coming episodes when we talk about diseases and their prevention.