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Cholesterol: Friend or Foe

Updated on June 19, 2013

What is cholesterol anyway? You know there are good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, but which ones are which? Why is “bad” cholesterol bad? How can an increase in “good” cholesterol help you? If you are getting concerned about your health, particularly your cardiovascular health, which gets affected by the increase of cholesterol, then it is time to start looking at ways to improve your lifestyle!

Now, before we get into the different kinds of good and bad cholesterol let’s take a look at what cholesterol is. It is a fat found naturally in foods that help build cells in your body. It gets carried through your body by different kinds of proteins and what we know as good and bad cholesterol.

First, let’s talk about what bad cholesterol is and why it is bad for you. It is a kind of protein called a low-density lipoprotein, or LDL. These LDLs carry certain fats throughout the blood stream to your various organs and muscle tissue. This in itself is not a problem since a moderate amount of cholesterol is necessary for the cells to be healthy and work correctly.

The issue with LDLs is that if they are given an excess amount of cholesterol they will be circulating the blood stream with no place to deliver the cholesterol. What happens then is that the LDLs will just drop off the cholesterol in the blood vessel where it will bury itself in the walls and continue to expand as more cholesterol is deposited. It will then turn into plaque and start clogging the blood vessel where it restricts the blood flow forcing your blood pressure to raise, or it will stop the flow altogether resulting in cardiac arrest.

But what about good cholesterol? How is it different from those terrifying LDLs? Well if bad cholesterol is low-density lipoproteins, good cholesterol is high-density lipoproteins. The way these lipoproteins work differently than the LDLs is that they work to remove the excess cholesterol deposited in your system and deliver that away from where it can do harm to your liver, where it will get broken up thus neutralizing any dangerous affects it may cause. Increasing your intake of these HDLs, though technically a type of cholesterol itself, will actually help lower your overall cholesterol levels.

So now that you know what is happening to your body on a molecular level, and why an abundance of cholesterol can be unhealthy for you let’s discuss how you can avoid bad cholesterol and lead a healthier life.

This should be a multi-pronged approach where you attack bad cholesterol from multiple sides. There are several different ways to lower your cholesterol and a simple combination of a few of them will result in a quick and lasting change for the better. This means that you need more than just a low cholesterol diet to help you reduce the intake, you need to make a lifestyle change.

To reduce the amount of cholesterol in your food, you need to know where you will find those pesky LDLs. Dairy products like butter, cheese, and some fatty milks will contain a high amount of cholesterol because of a process called “hydrogenation.” Hydrogenation is the process of infusing hydrogen into foods to make its shelf life last longer. The issue with hydrogenation is that when it is partial it converts the chemical bonds in the fat to trans fat, or saturated fat, making it not usable by the human body. The LDLs will just pick up these trans fats, and since no cells can accept them, the LDLs will deposit them in the blood vessel!

Ways to avoid these products in your next shopping run will be to aim more for vegetable oils, like canola or grape seed oils, to substitute for the more popular, fatty, butter. White wine vinegar, too, is a healthy addition to any pantry or cabinet.

As well avoiding the partially hydrogenated products, try to avoid fatty meats, too, since that fat contains the very LDLs and cholesterol you are trying to avoid. Sticking to leaner meats like turkey, chicken, and fish will reduce your cholesterol intake considerably more than red meat. If you are unable to purchase leaner meats at your local grocery store, and are served fatty meats, do yourself the favor and simply eat around the fat!

Avoiding these foods will certainly decrease the amount of bad cholesterol but you don’t have to stop there! You can take steps in your diet to include more good cholesterol. This means focusing more on soluble fibers that can be found in bran, oatmeal, and all sorts of beans. These soluble fibers will take longer to digest making you feel full longer but they will also help your body defend itself against cholesterol by interfering with its absorption of them. Nuts, too, like almonds and walnuts, contain polyunsaturated fatty acid, unlike the partially hydrogenated food products that are saturated, and can be incorporated into any low cholesterol diet.

Now, these are all great ways to amend your diet to reduce your cholesterol intake but you do not have to stop there! Another approach you can take to lowering cholesterol is to exercise more often. Aerobic exercises like walking, jogging, swimming, and bicycling. These kinds of exercises will help to increase your heart rate, increase the oxygen intake, and most importantly move the blood around your system. Aerobic exercise will increase the amount of red blood cells in your system to carry the oxygen in your blood vessels, and it will strengthen your heart muscle lowering your blood pressure. You will also notice your weight will go down, since aerobic exercises also help burn fat stores throughout your body, lowering the amount of overall cholesterol content you contain.

It is important with any lifestyle change to research, either on your own, or with a physician, to determine if your cholesterol levels are healthy or not to determine if changes need to be made.

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