Should I be concerned about cholesterol?

Perhaps you’ve heard that cholesterol isn’t as “bad” as it was once thought to be. Or, maybe your doctor has told you that you have high cholesterol and need to make dietary changes to bring it down. Cholesterol has been a hot topic in nutrition research over the last few years. However, all of the new information is leaving many people confused as to whether or not they should be concerned with 1. Their cholesterol levels, and 2. Whether they should be eating cholesterol-containing foods. 

Let’s break it down for you! 

Understanding your cholesterol levels 

Cholesterol actually plays a very important role in the human body. In fact, it is used to make cell membranes, and plays an important role in creating hormones like estrogen and testosterone. We have two main “types” of cholesterol in our body - low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). You can remember the function of these two types by thinking low = “lousy” and high = “healthy”. High LDL cholesterol levels are cause for concern - these create a buildup in the arteries (similar to a “plaque”) that can lead to heart attack and stroke. High HDL cholesterol is actually a good thing - it helps to remove the LDL buildup from your arteries. So, how do we reduce our cholesterol? 

Should you eat cholesterol-containing foods? 

Initial research thought high dietary intake of cholesterol would lead to high blood levels. Disproven decades ago, one might (mistakenly) think that decreasing dietary cholesterol may reduce blood cholesterol levels. However, 80% of the cholesterol in our blood is generated by the liver, so reducing dietary cholesterol is quite unsuccessful. Studies going back to Ancel Key’s original Seven Country Studies show that how much cholesterol we eat has very little to do with how much cholesterol is in the blood. Whatever else he got wrong, he got this right – eating cholesterol does not raise blood cholesterol. Every single study done since the 1960s has shown this fact repeatedly. Eating more cholesterol does not raise blood levels.

So what should you do about cholesterol? 

Studies show that fasting is a simple dietary strategy that can significantly lower cholesterol levels. What happens to LDL levels during fasting? Well, they go down. A lot. Over the 70 days of alternate daily fasting, there was about a 25% reduction in LDL (great reduction!). To be sure, pharmaceuticals can reduce them about 50% or more, but this simple dietary measure has almost half the power of one of the most powerful classes of medications in use today.

But why does fasting work where regular diets fail? Simply put, during fasting, the body switches from burning sugar to burning fat for energy. Free fatty acids (FFA) are oxidized for energy and FFA synthesis is reduced (body is burning fat and not making it). The decrease in triacylglycerol synthesis results in a decrease in VLDL (Very Low Density Lipoprotein) secretion from the liver which results in lowered LDL.

If you have been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you should focus on a heart healthy diet. Ensuring that you get enough fibre from foods like vegetables, legumes and whole grains, plus sources of healthy fats, like omega-3’s from fish, are important for heart health. In addition, limit your intake of trans fats and simple carbohydrates. Incorporate fasting throughout your weekly routine.

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