A number of cholesterol myths have accumulated over the years, so it’s time to debunk some of these common fallacies and understand the facts instead. We’ve been programmed to believe that cholesterol is bad, however recent studies have steadily unfolded and overturned this belief. Before we delve into the myths of cholesterol, let’s develop a little understanding first.
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is an important substance in our body. The brain and nervous system is full of cholesterol, and our cell walls depend on cholesterol too. It is a substance that can’t dissolve in water or in our blood, so it combines with protein to form a lipoprotein to travel around the body. This protein comes in the form of High-density Lipoproteins (HDL, known as ‘good’ cholesterol) and Low-density Lipoproteins (LDL, known as ‘bad’ cholesterol).
Do We Need Cholesterol?
Yes! Nearly all of our hormones are made from cholesterol (think oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone), and we need cholesterol for our immune system. Cholesterol plays an important role in building cell membranes and helps to regulate protein pathways, so too little cholesterol can have a negative impact on your body. Cholesterol is also an important building block for vitamin D production.
How Does Your Body Deal With Cholesterol?
Your liver produces around 75% of your body’s cholesterol, and you add between 300 to 500mg of cholesterol through diet. If your body needs more cholesterol to produce something, such as oestrogen or testosterone, your body will produce new cholesterol, team it with protein in the form of LDL (its form of transport) and send it to the bloodstream. Your cells will then claim it, and any unused LDLs will be reclaimed by HDLs, which your liver will bundle together. When the HDLs return to the liver, they are then recycled or used to build bile acid, which is essential for intestinal digestion.
So it sounds like the perfect partnership, right?
Well, almost. The problem is that when our LDL levels are too high, this can lead to a plaque build-up in our arteries. This plaque can cause hardening and narrowing of the arteries, which is called atherosclerosis. These excess LDLs can sometimes break loose and cause clotting in the arteries, causing a heart attack or stroke. HDLs prevent this from happening as they transport any loose LDLs back to the liver, which is why it’s good to have high levels of HDL in our blood.
What’s The Deal With Triglycerides?
Triglycerides also contribute to your overall cholesterol count. Triglycerides are a type of fat and they’re used to store excess energy. High levels can be caused by inactivity, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and obesity, as well as a high-carbohydrate diet. Elevated triglyceride levels are often associated with high LDL levels (which is bad), and can increase the risk of heart attacks due to the plaque build-up in the arteries.
What Are The Top 3 Myths?
Myth #1: Fats are bad
Healthy fats, such as those found in nuts, seeds and fish, play an important role in reducing inflammation and improving blood cholesterol levels. The common assumption is that saturated fats, such as red meat, bacon and cheese, increase the risk of heart disease as well as cholesterol levels. In actual fact, there is little evidence that proves this relationship.
One player that we can’t ignore is refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and sugary drinks. Refined carbs lower the level of HDLs (‘good’ cholesterol) and increase triglycerides. Trans fats that come from hydrogenated oils, margarines and fried foods raise LDL levels and decrease HDL. They also contribute to insulin resistance as well as fire up inflammation, which is what increases the risk of heart disease.
Myth #2: High cholesterol leads to heart disease
The idea that dietary fat causes high cholesterol is a myth. The idea that high cholesterol leads to heart disease is also a myth.
Inflammation, oxidation, stress and sugar are in fact the real causes of heart disease. Injuries can occur to the lining of the arteries, which are caused from high blood pressure and toxins. LDL is brought in to heal the arteries, however if these LDLs become damaged by oxidation they can then penetrate the artery walls. If this inflammation and oxidation continues, a plaque forms in the arteries and as mentioned before, can lead to blockages and heart attacks. If this inflammation didn’t occur in the first place, the arteries wouldn’t ever get blocked.
Myth #3: Eggs are the enemy
For years we have been told to avoid egg yolks like the plague. Yes, eggs are high in dietary cholesterol, but this isn’t as bad as we once thought. Only some of the cholesterol we get from foods ends up in our bloodstream, and our body compensates for an increase in cholesterol by producing less itself.
Don’t let your fear of dietary cholesterol prevent you from eating eggs. Eggs are a fantastic source of protein, they’re packed with nutrients and vitamins and they raise the levels of ‘good’ HDL, which is exactly what we want!
So remember, cholesterol isn’t always a bad thing! Don’t get cholesterol confused with heart disease, and focus on living a healthy lifestyle (i.e. avoid refined-sugars, smoking and stress) to increase HDL and decrease artery blockage.