A Fine Balance: Diet & Cholesterol

By: Dr. Mike Baker, ND

Recently, cholesterol has been making the news. In the US, new dietary guidelines will soon suggest that cholesterol is no longer as much of a concern as once thought. After 55 years of having a bad reputation, negative perceptions of cholesterol are shifting. Cholesterol is generally not bad for people, and in fact, we need it to survive.

Cholesterol is a special type of fat called a sterol. It is produced by animals and is vital to life. Cholesterol keeps our body’s cells from falling apart, is used to make hormones like cortisol, testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and vitamin D. Cholesterol is a critical component of our nervous system and helps keep our nerves firing properly.

Although cholesterol is generated by every cell in the body, the majority of it is made in the liver. The two most well known forms of cholesterol are high density lipoprotein (HDL) and low density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL is what leaves the liver and transports cholesterol to all the cells in our body. HDL helps to remove cholesterol from cells and take it back to the liver for disposal. Therefore, HDL is considered to be the “good” cholesterol and LDL “bad.” But is LDL really to blame for problems like increased risk of stroke and heart attacks? The answer is yes… and no.

As LDL travels through the blood it can interact with oxygen to become oxidized. Once oxidized, LDL does become bad – it sticks the walls of the vessels and leads to inflammation, which causes scar tissue and plaque formation. So, the more LDL you have the greater possibility it has to be oxidized and lead to a greater risk of heart disease and stroke.

As a naturopathic physician, it’s always my goal to determine what’s causing heart disease. Could it be too much cholesterol? Lowering dietary cholesterol or fat intake doesn’t necessarily reduce health risks. It’s important to address what’s causing the oxidization of LDL. It is likely that excess consumption of processed carbohydrates (high fructose corn syrup, sugars, flours), trans fats, and smoking are leading causes of heart disease.

How can you incorporate this information into your life? One of the best diets is the Mediterranean diet. It consists of healthy fats (nuts, seeds, olive oil), lots of fruits and veggies, grains, fish, poultry, minimal red meat, and small amounts of processed carbohydrates. Unless you have high cholesterol, don’t focus on restricting it in your diet. Enjoy sources of cholesterol such as eggs, dairy and meat in moderation. Red meat should be eaten once a week, poultry 1-2 times a week, and fish 2-3 times a week. Dairy and eggs can be consumed daily (ie one egg a day).

Cholesterol is critical part of a healthy diet and, like everything in life, the key is balance and moderation.