The Cholesterol Myth – Villain or Vital?

For over 40 years people with high cholesterol have been made to swear off egg yolks, meat and dairy because these have been mistakenly labeled as ‘high cholesterol foods’. In all this time dietary advice has universally recommended everyone should stick to a low fat, high carbohydrate diet…and yet this hasn’t improve blood cholesterol levels. What is going on? Once we start to get into the details, it’s not hard to see why there’s so much confusion around cholesterol. One of the issues we have is that despite years of research and studies being done, there are still not clear guidelines about what is really helpful and what isn’t, and new discoveries are constantly coming to light. To start with, you may have heard of cholesterol being ‘good’ and ‘bad’. This is the cholesterol that’s already inside your bloodstream. There are also ‘better’ and ‘worse’ dietary fats, the kind of fat we consume through the diet. To begin to help reducing the confusion, we need to clear up some of the false claims and misconceptions that surround the subject of cholesterol.

MYTH: All cholesterol comes from eating the wrong food

Cholesterol is actually an essential part of our normal, healthy bodies, and we need a certain amount of cholesterol to help form the membranes of our cells and some essential hormones. In fact, if we don’t have enough cholesterol our body will make its own, because cholesterol is essential for healthy bodily function.

MYTH: All cholesterol is bad

When it comes to the cholesterol in our blood stream there is the ‘good’ cholesterol, HDL (short for high density lipoprotein, the ‘bad’ cholesterol, LDL (low density lipoprotein) and the ‘worse’ cholesterol, VLDL (very low density lipoprotein). Triglycerides are another aspect of blood cholesterol which is generally seen to be unbeneficial. So if you have ‘high’ cholesterol, it’s important to look at which type of cholesterol is high. Simply looking at the total blood cholesterol and saying the total is high just won’t cut it. When HDL cholesterol is high, this is actually cardio protective meaning it helps your heart and blood vessels stay healthy and helps you to avoid heart attacks. You don’t want to lower this one.

MYTH: Eating high cholesterol foods will increase your cholesterol

This is just simply not the case. Eating cholesterol in foods like egg yolk has a much lower impact than other components in your diet. If you’re worried about your blood cholesterol levels it’s much more important to lower your intake of trans fats that are often found in processed cakes, cookies and margarines and also be cautious of your saturated fat intake from processed meats, dairy and processed oils.

MYTH: A low fat diet is the only way to lower cholesterol

In fact numerous studies have shown that switching from a diet high in saturated and trans fat to a diet high in carbohydrate foods like bread, pasta and rice, which are low in fat, did not help to lower cholesterol levels as effectively as replacing unhealthy fats in the diet with healthy ones. This means a low fat diet is not necessary to lower cholesterol levels, and lower cholesterol and better heart health can be achieved with a diet rich in healthy fats.

There are so many important aspects of our food intake and choices to consider when we’re aiming for better health. When you’re equipped with high quality and up to date information, you are empowered to understand how your food choices and your body work together, which makes it easy for you to achieve your health goals. Understanding the dietary relationship between fat intake and cholesterol is just one step in this journey to prime functioning, effective disease management and a happier, healthier life!

References

  • Gordon, Tavia, et al. “High density lipoprotein as a protective factor against coronary heart disease: the Framingham Study.” The American journal of medicine 62.5 (1977): 707­714.

  • Mensink, Ronald P., et al. “Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta­analysis of 60 controlled trials.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 77.5 (2003): 1146­1155.