All we ever hear is “Cholesterol is bad.” But what is it, and why does it have such a bad reputation? The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute defines cholesterol as “a waxy, fat-like substance found in all cells of the body.” That’s right—it’s already in every cell in your body.
It doesn’t just come from your diet; your body makes cholesterol. According to the American Heart Association, your liver produces 75% of your cholesterol, and the small intestine helps create and distribute it. And yes, cholesterol is found in foods such as eggs, meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products.
Our bodies need cholesterol to make vitamin D, estrogen, testosterone, and substances that aid the digestive process. For optimal health, however, we need to maintain a healthy balance by not ingesting too much of the foods that increase our cholesterol levels. There’s no need to panic, let’s look a little closer at how cholesterol really works.
How does cholesterol work?
Cholesterol travels through your bloodstream in little units called lipoproteins. They are made of fat on the inside, and proteins on the outer layer. Two kinds of lipoproteins transport cholesterol around your body: LDL (“low-density lipoproteins”) and HDL (“high-density lipoproteins”). It’s important to maintain healthy levels of both LDL and HDL. LDL cholesterol is commonly known as “bad” cholesterol, as high levels lead to clogged arteries (the vessels that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body.) Meanwhile, HDL cholesterol is called “good” cholesterol; it brings cholesterol from all over your body back to your liver, where it will be removed.
Myth: Statin medications will fix it all
For people with heart disease, statin drugs are an integral component of treatment. For those who are otherwise healthy, however, statins may not be the best path. A Harvard study showed that individuals with less than a 20% risk of heart disease over the next ten years had no dramatic reduction in likelihood of death as a result of statin drugs.
I knew someone who was denied a life insurance policy in his early thirties because his cholesterol was very high. After a stint on a statin drug, his cholesterol dropped but he began to suffer side effects such as memory loss and impaired muscle control in their hands. I started to research how exercise and diet could naturally lower cholesterol, and we did it together. A few months later, he was off the medication, eating a mostly plant-based diet, and swimming several days a week. His cholesterol levels were healthy and his doctor was pleased to see such a turnaround. Sometimes, all you need is an aggressive plan of attack and the willingness to change your diet and exercise regimen.
Myth: Eggs are the enemy
OK, by now we all know that egg yolks are high in cholesterol; each once contains about 187mg. According to the Mayo Clinic, people in good health can eat up to seven eggs a week with no increase in their risk of heart disease. A Yale University study found that individuals with coronary heart disease could “safely consume two eggs per day for six weeks and experience no adverse effects on cholesterol levels.” Eggs also contain nutrients that may lower the risk for heart disease, such as folate, riboflavin, protein, vitamins B12 and D.
In addition, eggs are a good source of choline (a nutrient that helps our memory) and antioxidants (which help prevent macular degeneration). It’s important to look at the foods you consume alongside eggs. Bacon, sausage and cheese are probably not the healthiest way to go. Instead, try switching out to a vegetable-based sausage crumble, or simply have some peppers and spinach in your next omelet. Balance is key.
Myth: Cholesterol is bad
Cholesterol is found in every cell in your body—it’s not some evil invader. It produces hormones, cell membranes, vitamin D and helps your digestion. If your cholesterol levels are too low, you may suffer memory loss and cognitive issues. We’re not saying that you should go out and grab a stick of chicken-fried butter, but as trite as it may sound, adhere to the maxim “all things in moderation.” A few eggs a week and little pat of real butter now and then will not kill you if you’re a generally healthy person. However, those with diabetes and other health issues need to seriously monitor their diets, avoiding foods that are high in cholesterol.
The bottom line is that cholesterol is not the problem. Poor diet, lack of fresh air and adequate physical exertion are. Quit smoking, please. If you take the stairs instead of the elevator, eat more plants, and get outdoors every day for some good old-fashioned cardio then you won’t have to worry so much about that butter cream frosting on your birthday cake.