This week in our Simple Food Terms Explained series, we examine the term “cholesterol.” Cholesterol is key to our overall health and as you’ll read, not as simple as good vs bad.
What is Cholesterol?
You’ve probably heard of the terms “good” and “bad” cholesterol or been told by your doctor to “watch your cholesterol levels.” But what exactly does that mean?
Cholesterol is a fat-like chemical that exists in our cells and has important natural functions in our bodies, including contributing to the structure of cell walls, producing digestive bile acids in our intestines, and enabling our body to produce certain hormones. It also allows our bodies to produce vitamin D. Cholesterol is carried throughout our bloodstream by water-soluble carrier molecules known as lipoproteins.
Types of Cholesterol
There are three types of lipoprotein that carry cholesterol through our veins and arteries that are classified as:
- low-density lipoprotein (LDL)
- very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL)
- high-density lipoprotein (HDL)
Although cholesterol occurs naturally in our bodies, it also occurs in the bodies of other animals, some of which we regularly consume such as beef and poultry.
Balance is Key
Balance is the key when it comes to cholesterol because although we need normal levels of cholesterol within our bodies, too much of it can become a silent enemy that puts at risk of a heart attack.
High levels of cholesterol carried by low-density lipoproteins (LDL) can lead to an excess or a “build-up” of cholesterol in our arteries which can cause them to narrow over time, restricting blood flow to the heart and contributing to the risk of a heart attack. That’s why LDL cholesterol is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol.
The cholesterol carried by high-density lipoproteins (HDL), on the other hand, is carried to the liver for removal from the body. That’s the reason that HDL cholesterol is often labeled “good” cholesterol.
When medical professionals refer to “high cholesterol” in a patient, they’re generally referring to the LDL and VLDL varieties. Fortunately, there are several ways to limit these including:
- avoiding or limiting animal fats found in meats, egg yolks and cheese
- avoiding saturated fats and trans-fats found in baked goods, dairy products, chocolate, deep-fried foods and processed foods
- maintaining a healthy weight
- exercising regularly