Cholesterol has many important functions in the body.
It’s involved in the production of hormones, which are needed to regulate cells and tissues. It’s involved in the production of bile acids, which help with digestion. And, it’s also important for the proper functioning and structure of cell membranes.
Despite its vital role to our health, cholesterol is often seen as something that needs to be avoided in our diet. And more often than not, cholesterol is seen as the “bad guy” when it comes to heart disease.
The reality is that it isn’t a particular type of cholesterol or even the total amount of cholesterol, that in and of itself contributes to heart disease.
What determines the impact of cholesterol on the development of heart disease is the degree to which it’s been damaged by oxygen. In other words, it’s the oxidized cholesterol that’s involved in plaque formation and eventually leads to obstruction in the arteries.
So what determines how much oxidized cholesterol is in our body?
You may be surprised to find out that the amount of cholesterol we get from our diet alone does not have a huge impact (most of our cholesterol is actually produced by the body itself).
Instead, the level of oxidized cholesterol is dependent on:
- our total dietary fat intake
- the types of fats we’re eating
- the amount of antioxidants in our diet
- how much wholesome natural foods we’re eating (i.e., vegetables, fruits, etc)
- how much exercise we’re getting
- a genetic component, which determines how your body processes and metabolizes cholesterol
So before we get into the tips on how to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, let’s first talk about the two types of cholesterol: HDL and LDL.
The difference between HDL and LDL
HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is a molecule that carries cholesterol from various parts of the body and brings it to the liver. The liver then breaks it down and eliminates it from the body. HDL also helps reduce inflammation and keeps the immune system under control. On the flip-side, LDL is the low-density lipoprotein, and its function is to deliver cholesterol throughout the body to various cells and tissues that need it.
HDL is often referred to as the “good” cholesterol, and LDL as the “bad” cholesterol. However in my opinion, there really shouldn’t be a distinction between “good” and “bad” cholesterol. Both HDL and LDL have an important function in regulating the levels of cholesterol in the body, and to ensure that cholesterol is either delivered or taken away whenever necessary. Yes, too much LDL or not enough HDL is not healthy. But to completely label one as good and to write off the other as bad is definitely misleading!
Healthy cholesterol levels
For the average adult, normal healthy cholesterol levels are:
HDL: >60 mg/dL or >1.3 mmol/L
If your blood tests are telling you otherwise, here are some dietary and lifestyle tips that will help you normalize your cholesterol levels. Please consult with your doctor if you have a specific health condition and/or to make sure these tips are appropriate for you.
To increase HDL levels:
- Exercise on a regular basis.
It can be as simple as going for a 30-minute walk every day. Any type of physical activity is great for you, so do something that you enjoy and are motivated to do on a regular basis. Some other ideas include: hiking, biking, jogging, swimming, and weight-based exercises.
- Increase your dietary fibre intake.
Fibre is extremely important for good health, as it keeps things moving through the digestive system and also supports the role of the healthy gut bacteria. Good sources of fibre include fruits and vegetables (such as apples, pears, plums, banana, carrots, beets, broccoli, asparagus, etc… the list goes on!), whole grains (such as amaranth, quinoa, oats, etc), legumes (beans and lentils), and nuts and seeds.
To decrease LDL levels:
- Eat the right fats.
There is a lot of misinformation out there about the types and amount of fat we should be eating. The bottom line is that fats are the basic building blocks of cell membranes, hormones, and other important molecules in the body, especially in the brain. We need some fat in our diet to thrive. The key is having the right fat. This includes some saturated fat (coconut oil and animal-based sources such as meat, butter, lard, etc), monounsaturated fat (olive oil, avocados, nuts), and polyunsaturated fatty acids (the omega-3s and omega-6s found in nuts, seeds and wild fish).
In addition to eating healthy fats, it’s also important to avoid the wrong type of fat, namely trans fat. Trans fat does not occur naturally and is actually an artificial product made by adding hydrogen atoms to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. To decrease your intake of trans fat, avoid eating from fast-food restaurants, which often use trans fat for deep frying and cooking. Other sources of trans fat are processed junk food like potato chips and baked goods that are made with shortening.
- Eat complex carbohydrates.
Complex carbs are long-chain sugars that are digested at a slower rate and therefore provide you with a sustained source of energy throughout the day. With complex carbs you also avoid crazy blood sugar spikes and the subsequent crash that happens when you eat simple sugars. It’s worth mentioning that complex carbs are also a great source of fibre, which is recommended to increase HDL levels. Sources of complex carbs include: whole grains (amaranth, quinoa, barley, oats, etc), legumes (beans and lentils), and starchy veggies (potatoes, squash, turnips, parsnips).
- Decrease your caffeine intake.
If you drink more than 2 cups of coffee per day, start cutting back one cup at a time over a week-long period, or until you adjust. Instead of seeing it as a “deprivation”, replace your regular cup of coffee with some herbal tea, a green smoothie, or a light and healthy snack such as fruit or some nuts and seeds.
- Decrease/eliminate your nicotine intake.
Although quitting smoking is way beyond the scope of this post, I strongly recommend that you seek some professional advice (doctor or other health coach) to help you cut down and quit this habit. I think it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that smoking is detrimental to health and the sooner you quit, the sooner your body can begin to detoxify from the toxins and heal.
Protect cholesterol from oxidation
As I mentioned earlier in this post, the main contributor to the development of heart disease is not the total amount of cholesterol in the body, but rather it is the amount of cholesterol that is damaged by oxygen – i.e., oxidized.
So, to protect cholesterol from getting oxidized, our goal is to reduce and prevent free radicals and inflammation from occurring in the first place. And the best way to do this is by increasing our antioxidant and phytonutrient intake!
Antioxidants are molecules that actually stop the chain reaction that occurs during oxidation and free-radical damage. Some specific antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, manganese, and zinc.
Phytonutrients are a diverse class of compounds that play many beneficial roles in the body alongside other essential nutrients in order to promote good health.
Both antioxidants and phytonutrients are found in a large number of natural, wholesome foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and more.
The Bottom Line
Whew! We just went through a lot of information.
So, the bottom line on how to lower cholesterol and maintain healthy levels?
- Eat plenty (and a variety) of wholesome natural foods – this will give you the complex carbs, fibre, healthy fats, antioxidants, and phytonutrients discussed in the post
- Exercise on a regular basis
- Eliminate or decrease unhealthy dietary and lifestyle habits: eating processed food (sources of trans fat), consuming too much caffeine, and smoking
Now I want to hear from you – which of these tips are you going to start implementing TODAY? Have you already had the experience of going from unhealthy to healthy cholesterol levels through dietary and lifestyle changes? Share your story!
And as always, thanks for reading!