We’ve all heard people talk about ‘bad cholesterol’ and ‘good cholesterol’, but what exactly do these mean? It’s important to understand what cholesterol is and how it affects our health.
Cholesterol is a type of lipid (or fat) that is produced by our liver in small amount, and is essential for many bodily functions such as hormone production and fat digestion. We also take in cholesterol through the foods that we eat. Any excess cholesterol that is present in our blood is taken back into our liver for storage. If our liver’s capacity for storing cholesterol has been reached, the surplus remains in our blood. This is referred to as having high cholesterol (also known as ‘Hypercholesterolemia’). The excess cholesterol then circulates around the body and eventually deposits on the walls of our arteries. If this process continues for years without any dietary or medical intervention, this may cause blockages in our arteries. In turn, this will lead to the development of heart disease, or even to more fatal conditions such as heart attacks or strokes.
High cholesterol may be caused by genetics, but it is more commonly a result of a poor diet and lack of exercise. Following a healthy lifestyle, or taking the appropriate medication, can go a long way in keeping your heart healthy.
How does one know if he or she has high cholesterol? What is alarming about Hypercholesterolemia is that it has no symptoms! Often, the first time a person knows that they suffer from high cholesterol is following a heart attack. For this reason, it is highly recommended that you check your cholesterol levels starting from the age of 20, and every five years thereafter. If you suffer from diabetes, hypertension or heart disease, your doctor may recommend more frequent tests.
Cholesterol is transported through your blood attached to proteins. This combination is known as a ‘Lipoprotein’. There are different types of Lipoproteins in our blood depending on the quantity of cholesterol that each carries. The more cholesterol the Lipoprotein contains, the more harmful it is. We will go through two types of Lipoproteins:
- Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) or ‘bad cholesterol’. It is responsible for carrying cholesterol around your body, and possibly causes deposits in the arteries. This can lead to arterial blockage, and heart disease eventually.
- High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) or ‘good cholesterol’. This type is responsible for scavenging cholesterol away from your blood back to your liver where it is broken down, stored, or expelled from the body. So ultimately, HDL has a protective effect.
In order to stay safe and healthy, you need to aim at reducing your LDL levels and increasing your HDL levels. You can do this by:
- Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats. Saturated fats increase LDL cholesterol. They generally come from animals (with the exception of coconut!) and are solid at room temperature, such as butter and ghee. Unsaturated fats are plant based and are liquid at room temperature such as oils. So, instead of frying your eggs with butter, fry them with some oil. Also, since dairy products are animal based, opt for low-fat dairy alternatives rather than full-fat dairy.
- Include monounsaturated fats in your diet. These reduce LDL and increase HDL. Some examples include olive oil, avocadoes, nuts and canola oil.
- Load on the fiber. Fiber binds to cholesterol and removes it from your body, which reduces your cholesterol levels. You can do this by eating whole grains (whole grain cereal or whole grain bread), fruits, vegetables and legumes.
- Cut down on those cigarettes! Smoking reduces your good cholesterol and makes you more susceptible to heart disease.
- Be physically active. Exercise increases HDL and reduces LDL keeping you fit and heart-healthy.
If you’ve not had your cholesterol checked yet, make an appointment with your physician today. Remember that prevention is the key. Most of the diseases that we hear of today – such as high cholesterol, diabetes and hypertension – are all preventable. Make a few dietary changes, get off that couch, and put out that cigarette to keep your heart beating for longer!
This article includes general advice and may not be applicable to you. Before making any dietary changes or embarking on a fitness routine or diet, be sure to consult with a qualified physician