February is Heart Health Month – so let’s talk about it.
A January 2009 study published in the American Heart Journal found that nearly three out of four patients hospitalized for a heart attack had total cholesterol levels in the “normal” range of 200 or less. Some of them were taking statins to lower their cholesterol, and some of them had naturally low cholesterol. Basically, the statins weren’t preventing heart attacks from happening, and neither was low cholesterol.
So why then is cholesterol STILL a focus with overall health?
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance, technically a sterol–that is an important constituent of cell membranes. The vast majority of cholesterol in the body is made in the liver, while we absorb the rest from the diet. Cholesterol is the basic raw material that your body uses to make vitamin D; sex hormones, and bile acids needed for digestion. The theory that fat and cholesterol cause heart disease became widely accepted despite much evidence to the contrary.
Cholesterol travels in particles called lipoproteins, the most common of which are high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). HDL is the smallest of the lipoprotein particles and enables the transportation of triglycerides through the bloodstream. It also uses and excretes LDL form the body by delivering it to the liver; therefore, HDL is referred to as the “good” cholesterol. An increased level of HDL is protective against cardiovascular disease, lower levels of HDL raise your risk of heart disease. An HDL of 70 mg/DL or higher will give you the biggest benefits for your cardiovascular health. We refer LDL cholesterol to as the “bad” cholesterol. It is actually a combination of two primary types: the large, fluffy Pattern A and the small, dense Pattern B.
Is What We’ve Been Told about Cholesterol Misleading?
All of us have been told to avoid heart disease and heart attacks we need to keep our cholesterol levels in check. The media will have you believe that a low-fat diet that avoids foods high in cholesterol (like eggs) but includes foods high in carbohydrates (like Cheerios), will help lower cholesterol and protect you from heart disease. However, our body only absorbs approximately 15% of the cholesterol we eat, the other 85% is excreted, therefore the cholesterol we consume has very little to do with the cholesterol levels in our bloodstream.
Who are the Real Bad Guys?
The greater danger for everyone is in foods that are high in trans fats. The manufactured form of trans fat, seen on food labels as partially hydrogenated oil, may be found in products, such as packaged cakes, cookies and pies, shortening, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough, such as biscuits and rolls, fried foods, like french fries, doughnuts and fried chicken, nondairy coffee creamer and margarine. Trans fat increases your (bad) LDL cholesterol and decreases your (good) HDL cholesterol. It is the oxidized (bad) LDL cholesterol that sticks to the lining of the arteries and begins the process of inflammation–THIS IS THE TRUE CAUSE OF HEART DISEASE. Chronic inflammation is a significant component of virtually every single degenerative condition, especially heart disease, and often flies under the radar with no obvious symptoms.
Another dietary contributor to heart disease is refined carbohydrates, specifically SUGAR. Sugar contributes to inflammation in the artery walls. Processed carbohydrates and sugar increase triglycerides, which are an important and independent risk factor for heart disease. Hypertension, high levels of triglycerides, and a high ratio of triglycerides to HDL are all better predictors of heart disease than cholesterol, and sugar increases every single one of these measures.
In conclusion: The Bad Guys = Trans fats and Sugar
Lifestyle Habits that Increase Heart Health
Eliminate or reduce: sugar, soda, processed carbs, trans fats, processed meats, processed soybean and vegetable oils.
Eat more: WHOLE FOODS–veggies, fruits, lean protein, whole grains, healthy fats–check out this article from Mayo Clinic: Heart-healthy Diet–8 Steps to Prevent Heart Disease.
Manage stress: exercise regularly, meditate or practice deep breathing, express your emotions, play, cultivate intimacy & pleasure, and enjoy life!
Need more help with your Heart Health or Overall Fitness and Nutrition?