The Health Index
Cholesterol is a waxy natural substance found in all animal cells. As such, cholesterol is vital. It is an important ingredient for the production of bile acids, needed for the digestion of fat, and for vitamin D and certain hormones (e.g. oestrogen, testosterone and cortisol). Moreover, cholesterol is thought to contribute to our immune system.
Unfortunately, cholesterol has had very bad press over the last 50 years or so, as it has been – and often still is - blamed as the culprit in cardio-vascular disease. Although it does play a role under certain circumstances, we now know that it is too simplistic to just point the finger at cholesterol.
Given the many important functions this substance has in the body, it seems illogical to lower it at all costs. If your doctor is concerned because your cholesterol levels are elevated and you are concerned about cardio-vascular disease, click below to learn more and find a nutrition practitioner who can help.
What are the causes?
For many years, dietary guidelines across the Western world recommended limiting the intake of cholesterol from food, however there was never any logical reason for this recommendation. The body needs more cholesterol than we can eat, and the difference is made up in the liver. If we eat too little cholesterol, the liver makes more. If we eat a lot of it, it makes less. In 2015, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans declared that cholesterol is “no longer a nutrient of concern”.
It was saturated fat that was suspected to cause elevated cholesterol levels. Again, no evidence could ever be found to support this. Despite this, dietary guidelines restrict overall fat intake to 30 per cent of calories, of which no more than 10 per cent should come from saturated fat. This has been the case for decades and still continues today without any scientific basis. The conventional advice is to replace saturated fat with unsaturated fats from seed oils (e.g. sunflower, safflower, corn, soya).
The limitation of overall fat intake – a low-fat diet - leads to an increased intake of carbohydrates. All carbohydrates are broken down into sugar. Both seed oils and sugar are known to be highly inflammatory. Cardiovascular disease is the result of long-term , low-grade inflammation within the arteries. Cholesterol is deposited at sites of injury within the arterial wall in an attempt to repair them. Cholesterol plaques become problematic if the cholesterol oxidises.
One of the major risk factors for heart disease is pre-existing insulin resistance and diabetes. High blood sugar is known to increase cholesterol. Once blood sugar levels are under control, cholesterol levels tend to normalise as well, except in people with a relatively rare condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH).
How can a nutrition practitioner help?
In many developed countries, including the US, the UK, Japan, Sweden, and Germany, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death and is considered almost entirely lifestyle-related and avoidable. Cholesterol is not the only risk factor for heart disease, and it is a minor one at that. There are other risk factors also affected by diet and lifestyle.
Your nutrition practitioner may recommend a more detailed blood test to see the bigger picture. A nutrition practitioner will ask questions about your overall health and health history, diet, lifestyle and exercise habits.
They will look at your food diary to see where there may be room for improvement. Your nutrition practitioner will then develop a customised diet, supplement and lifestyle plan for you.