Isn't Some Cholesterol Actually Healthy?
Cholesterol is a naturally occurring, waxy substance primarily synthesized by the liver. Cholesterol is necessary to form cell membranes, to produce hormones like testosterone and estrogen, to transform sunlight into Vitamin D which helps build our bones and strengthens our immune system, and to synthesize bile acids which aid in the digestion of fat. Cholesterol is also vital for all neurological functions including the formation of memories. So if cholesterol is a good thing, why is my doctor constantly telling me I need to lower my cholesterol level?
Elevated blood cholesterol is a long-recognized predictor of cardiovascular disease, which is the world's leading cause of death. Cholesterol is a crystal that cannot dissolve in our bloodstream. Instead, cholesterol has to be transported from one place to another by carriers called lipoproteins, which are a combination of fat (lipid) and protein. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are sometimes called "lousy cholesterol" because they are known for causing buildup of arterial plaque which in turn raises the risk heart attack and stroke. High-density lipoproteins or "healthy cholesterol" help remove LDL cholesterol from the arteries, carrying it to the liver where it can be broken down and eventually removed from the body. These two forms of cholesterol plus one fifth of our triglycerides (excess dietary energy stored as fat) is used to calculate our total cholesterol number. A total cholesterol below 150 is considered the safest range.
So is Cholesterol Good or Bad?
Why would our body require cholesterol for so many important functions if cholesterol is so damaging? Glad you asked! This question gets close to the heart of why I practice medicine the way I do. Our body was designed to eat a diet based on whole plant foods. Animal products and all oils have some amount of saturated fat, which not only damages the lining of our arteries -- making them vulnerable to the harmful effects of LDL cholesterol -- but it can also boost the production of excess cholesterol by our own liver. There is, however, more to the story.
All animals--including fish, chickens, turkeys, cows, and pigs--make cholesterol to support life functions. Not only does the meat of these animals contain cholesterol, but anything they produce--like eggs or milk--also has cholesterol. Consuming animals or their products can increase the total amount of cholesterol circulating in our bloodstream.
Conversely, avoiding oil, meat, and all animal products brings the total cholesterol level down. Sometimes my patients are upset because they see their HDL numbers lowering when they transition to a plant-based diet. I explain to them that this is actually a good sign: "Less crime on the street, fewer cops on the beat." When LDL (lousy) cholesterol lowers, the body doesn't have to do so much clean up, so HDL (healthy) cholesterol goes down, too.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Our bodies were designed to produce all the cholesterol we need from the whole plant foods we eat. If we eat oil and animal products, our bloodstream can be flooded with excess cholesterol, provoking the unwanted consequences of cardiovascular disease with the elevated risk of heart attack and stroke. Eating a low-fat, whole-food plant-based diet, free from added oil provides the fuel our bodies need to function optimally. Whether we're trying to lower our cholesterol naturally or prevent cardiovascular disease from ever becoming a problem in our lives, a diet centered on vegetables, beans, fruits, whole grains, with a few nuts and seeds is the best way to help maintain our cholesterol at the safest level.
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