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The Truth about Cholesterol
by Ed Bauman, Ph.D. and Marsha McLaughlin, N.C.

A look at Cholesterol and Your Health: Myths, Facts, and Controversies


"Cholesterol is evil," one of our misinformed clients recently reported. It's obvious the general public does not have a clear understanding of what cholesterol is and how it works in the body. Best-selling diet gurus, from Atkins to Weil, McDougall to Ornish have widely differing opinions of cholesterol. Commercial food manufacturers with cholesterol-free products to sell have frightened the public about the primary association of cardiovascular disease and the consumption of cholesterol-rich foods. Before condemning cholesterol completely, let's dispel some myths.

Where Does Cholesterol Come From?
Did you know that most blood cholesterol is made in your body? It is made in the liver from saturated fats. Only 3% of the cholesterol in your blood comes directly from the cholesterol in the foods you eat. The majority is manufactured in your liver from foods rich in saturated fats, such as butter, hard cheese and fatty meats like pork, lamb and beef--or from transaturated and oxidized fats such as margarine and cooked vegetable oils.

The Body Needs Cholesterol
Cells throughout the body use cholesterol to make a number of hormones necessary for growth and reproduction. Cholesterol is a precursor molecule for estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. The adrenal hormones that combat stress and relieve inflammation are cholesterol dependent. When there is damage to the walls of the arteries or veins, the liver sends cholesterol through the blood to protect the tissue from hemorrhaging. Cholesterol is a component of all cell walls. They are vital to proper brain and nerve function. Low levels of cholesterol have been associated with depression, anxiety and mood disorder. Cholesterol is also an essential ingredient of bile salts produced in the liver, used to emulsify fats and excrete fat-soluble toxins.

What Causes High Cholesterol Levels?
Genetic characteristics, fitness levels, stress, age and the ingestion of alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, refined carbohydrates, food additives and exposure to environmental chemicals affect both the quantity and quality of cholesterol in the body. A total level of blood cholesterol between 145 and 220 can be healthful for an adult--with a ratio of 3.5 to 1 of LDL, low-density cholesterol to HDL, high-density cholesterol (the good kind).

Good Fats and Bad Fats
Udo Erasmus states in his book, Fats That Heal - Fats That Kill, that "cholesterol consumption has remained about constant for the last 100 years, and therefore cannot be the primary cause of increases in cardiovascular disease, up 300% in that time period." Other factors must be considered such as diet, lifestyle and environment.

The Real Culprit
Although cholesterol has taken much of the blame in heart disease, the real culprit may be altered and damaged fats, not saturated fats and cholesterol. High cholesterol is more likely to stem from factors such as stress and rancid fats than from eating whole foods containing cholesterol in a natural context. Balance again is key. In his book, Smart Fats, Michael A. Schmidt states three basic critical points:
1) Too much fat in whatever form can lead to disease.
2) Too little fat in whatever form can lead to disease.
3) The kind of fat and the balance of various fats are the critical features that determine how fat contributes to disease.

Nasty (Ugly) Fats
Rancid and damaged fats fall into three categories:
1) Trans-fatty acids occur when oils are processed out of their natural state. When you eat trans-fatty acids, you end up with debris that clogs your cells, contributing to accelerated metabolic aging.
2) Oxidized fats are free radicals, damaged through exposure to air. Oxidation can be seen visually as rancid fats, such as when butter turns dark yellow or oils go brown. These rancid fats should never be eaten. Oxidized cholesterol is the harmful LDL form that adheres to arterial walls. (Healthful HDL cholesterol is an antioxidant that removes plaques from cell walls.)
3) Hydrogenated fats are fats that have been chemically altered. Margarine and shortening are two of the most damaging fatty substances you can eat! They are found in crackers, cookies, pies and candy. A sugar-fat confection is an unhealthy LDL cholesterol booster.

Change Your Oil, Now!
The key to avoiding damaged fats is to consume fresh, unspoiled fats from quality animal sources and certain uncooked plant oils, with their native antioxidants and nutrients intact. These fats are healthful.

Some guidelines for avoiding damaged fats are:
Whenever possible, eat fats and oils without cooking them.
Avoid man-made and damaged fats.
Use monounsaturated fats for cooking.
Polyunsaturated fats found in their natural state are healthy.
Never deep-fry foods.
Keep fats refrigerated to prevent rancidity.
Avoid all hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils.

The Egg and I
Eggs were once viewed as a major culprit in high cholesterol and we were advised to strictly limit our consumption. However, the egg's cholesterol content was taken out of context. Let's look at the nutritional value of an egg. Nutritional authorities agree that eggs are one of the best protein sources available. The egg protein (which is about 50% of its makeup), contains all the essential amino acids to be readily used by our system. Most of the rest of the egg is fat--about two-thirds of it unsaturated, occurring in the yolk with lecithin, a fat emulsifying agent. Two large eggs contain as much as 500 mg. of cholesterol. Research shows that the regular use of eggs alone does not raise the serum cholesterol (Wood, R., "Tumor Lipids: Biochemistry and Metabolism."
"American Oil Chemists Society. 1973: 75-88). The total nutrient density of a food, such as the egg, as well as the way it is grown, raised and prepared is what will determine its health benefit or detriment.

The Beef with Chicken
A well-known local nutrition doctor claims that there is as much cholesterol in chicken as there is in beef and therefore, he advises the public to avoid both of them. The truth of the matter is that chicken is a high protein food that is fairly low in fat, especially the white meat. Chicken contains on average 11% fat (unless it is deep-fried), whereas beef contains typically 30-40 % fat. The fat in chicken is two thirds polyunsaturated, with most of it found in the skin. Chicken eaten without the skin is only 5% fat. The amount of cholesterol and saturated fat in both chicken and beef will depend largely on the way the animals were fed and grazed. Free-range animals that eat grass have much less fat in general, more healthful essential fatty acids and as such pose little risk for elevating cholesterol. Feeding animals organic food is an important way to restore the health of all.

Achieving a Healthy Cholesterol Balance
Eating balanced, nutrient-rich meals is the key to lowering LDL (unfavorable) cholesterol and raising HDL (favorable) cholesterol. Meals that are 20-25% lean protein, 10-25% fats and 50-70% complex carbohydrates, with lots of B vitamins and fiber (both soluble and insoluble) will balance cholesterol. Strictly avoid fried foods and snack foods with any cooked oils, white flour, white sugar and chemical additives. There are numerous herbs and dietary supplements that have been shown to lower LDL. Chinese red yeast extract is a very reliable remedy to lower high cholesterol. Foods that nourish the liver, balance hormones and heal the vascular system relieve the body from having to make excess cholesterol. To live long and stay heart healthy: eat lemon, flax seeds, artichokes, avocados and olives, dandelion, green apples, soy, green tea, garlic, oysters, mussels, cold water fish, nutritional yeast, antioxidants, fresh and frozen berries and magnesium and potassium rich green vegetables and herbs.

(Famous) Last Words
And...don't forget to move your body. Walk, dance, stretch, pump some iron, be a sport and breathe! Stress less, play more, make your life a game, not a chore.

Ed Bauman, Ph.D. is the director of the IET Nutrition and Culinary Arts Programs in Cotati and is a nutrition consultant at Partners in Health. Marsha McLaughlin, NC is the outreach coordinator for IET (Institute for Educational Therapy). For more information visit www.iet.org


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