Last week I explained how cholesterol was essential for a number of functions in the body and that dropping levels too low could impact the balance of hormones and also brain function. I also shared the latest research on the effectiveness of Statins on cholesterol levels for a large percentage of patients who are prescribed it.
Today I wanted to focus on fats which also play a massive role in the balance of LDL – Low density lipoprotein (potentially unhealthy cholesterol) and HDL– High density lipoprotein (healthy cholesterol). It is a slightly longer post and I know from comments and emails that you are keen to get to the dietary changes that may encourage a healthy cholesterol balance.
First a look at some of the reasons behind why your cholesterol levels are out of balance.
- Obesity in itself is unhealthy but it usually comes with lack of exercise and high blood sugar levels.
- Exercise has been found to boost HDL levels in relation to LDL so if you are static you will see the reverse effect.
- High sugar levels damage the walls of the arteries.
- In combination with the sugar, the foods eaten to raise the amount in your bloodstream comes with unhealthy transfats in industrially produced foods.
- If you are a smoker it also causes the arteries to harden.
- Your liver is not functioning effectively and it’s LDL receptor cells are not managing the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream. This can be down to a genetic predisposition but is more likely because of a poor diet, drinking too much alcohol or a natural effect of aging. You can find out more about the liver here
- A diet lacking in the nutrients and fibre needed to cleanse and rejuvenate your body.
- Certain medications can increase the levels of LDL in your cholesterol
A closer look at LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein)
Hopefully in my last post I established that Cholesterol is something to be cherished and maintained to ensure a healthy balance of hormones and other functions within the body, I will now focus on the LDL – low density lipoprotein, which is the cholesterol with smaller particles, and is the type that can cause the arteries to clog with plaque leading to cardiovascular disease.
Free radicals are formed when we ingest white fats (Trans fats) in processed foods and snacks, too much sugar in the diet (including sodas, light or otherwise) smoking and other bad habits. The LDL and the VLDL (Very Low Density Lipoprotein) particles seem to like the bad boys and react with them making the particles unstable. They in turn react more aggressively with the surrounding tissues, including the lining of the arteries in the body called the endothelium.
This will affect the blood vessels with vital access to your brain and your heart, the carotid artery and the coronary artery, as well as those to your arms and legs.
Once that damage occurs in the endothelium, as with any tissue damage in your body, platelets and blood cells rush to the area, and it becomes a hot spot to catch anything that is moving through the blood stream that can adhere to the growing plaque mass. This includes the smaller particles of LDL that have been compromised by the free radicals. Obviously over a period of time this will grow to block the artery, then the blood flow and that is when heart attacks and strokes are likely.
So whilst cholesterol has a vital role in the body and the HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) is stable and with its larger particles not going to cause you a problem, you have to keep an eye on the unstable member of the family. The key to maintaining a healthy balance of cholesterol is to make sure that you keep the LDL lower than the HDL and that your diet does not encourage an excess of free radicals.
There are some conditions that will elevate cholesterol – apart from the hereditary factors, if someone is diabetic or has low thyroid function their levels can be quite high. This is when it makes sense to take the prescribed medication to maintain a lower overall level, but particularly the LDL.
A healthy balanced diet is still essential however, you cannot just take the pills and expect them to do all the work. However there are other prescribed medications that can also cause the levels to rise such as steroids and hormonal replacement and you should be aware of these possible side-effects and have regular cholesterol checks on your LDL levels.
Back to the diet and healthy fats
And whilst the headlines and medical profession maintain that eating healthy saturated fats is bad for your health and will automatically result in an unhealthy imbalance in your LDL and HDL, this is not the case.
In fact eaten in moderation, healthy fats contain vital nutrients the body needs and do not result in inflammation and diabetes.
One of the main reasons millions now have raised blood sugar levels that contribute to an imbalance in cholesterol levels is that they have been following the 50 year recommendation of governments around the world to eat a food pyramid that is focused on eating a much higher proportion of carbohydrates every day. Here is the old FDA food pyramid
All those carbohydrates.. particularly the white, nutritionally sterile breads, cakes, biscuits, cereals with added sugar and transfats, when eaten in large quantities raise blood sugar levels. Resulting not only in our obesity epidemic but the increasing number of Type II diabetics around the world. After 50 years of following this advice (and I was no exception until I was in my 40s) Obesity and diabetes is increasing each year along with heart disease.
- Total: 34.2 million people have diabetes (10.5% of the US population)
- Diagnosed: 26.9 million people, including 26.8 million adults
- Undiagnosed: 7.3 million people (21.4% are undiagnosed)
- Total: 88 million people aged 18 years or older have prediabetes (34.5% of the adult US population)
- 65 years or older: 24.2 million people aged 65 years or older have prediabetes
This is mirrored around the Western world and now tell me that the government advice we have been following for the last 50 years is working.
To reverse lifestyle diseases such as obesity, unhealthy cholesterol and diabetes we just need to make some fundamental changes to the food pyramid which is how I prefer to eat with a small amount of wholegrains each day.
But back to fats…………………………..
We must not cut the good fats out of our diet – they have an essential role to play in our health and without fats and cholesterol our bodies will be open to infections, poor function in areas such as the brain, heart, reproductive system and our eyesight.
It can be tricky because the good fats are fairly easy to spot but the harmful fats tend to be hidden and disguised in the packaged and processed foods we buy. Responsible manufacturers have mainly moved away from using the highly toxic ‘trans fats’ but unfortunately the cheaper your processed family meal for four is, the more likely it is to have few natural ingredients that might be classified as nutritional.
No one person’s diet is the same and you have to find the perfect balance for you and this includes your fat intake – as long as it is not harmful fats………..
Briefly, a quick look at the fats you are likely to encounter in your daily diet.
One fat to avoid all together, is not naturally occurring at all, and that is manufactured Trans Fats. Liquid oil is hydrogenated to extend its shelf life, but in the process Trans fatty acids are formed – found in most industrially produced foods including margarines -snacks such as microwave popcorn, cakes, biscuits, cookies, pies etc.
The fats classified as healthy fats are Monounsaturated fats – which lower total cholesterol and at the same time lower LDL and increase HDL – this is contained in nuts, such as walnuts and olive oil.
Polyunsaturated fats also lower total cholesterol and LDL and those that have an important component; Omega-3 fatty acids.
Flaxseeds, salmon, tuna, mackeral and other oily fish, olive oil, walnuts, chicken, beef, avocado and even spinach.
These can not only reduce your LDL and support HDL but are also very helpful in reducing blood pressure and the risk of developing blood clots. Even with people who have already suffered a heart attack including Omega-3 fatty acids in their diet reduces their risk of a fatal attack.
I love fish and it is very easy to include oily fish at least twice a week, although I do avoid farmed salmon and opt for frozen wild salmon. Some of the best for Omega-3 fatty acids are salmon, halibut, mackerel, sardines and Albacore Tuna.
Oils and cooking.
Grilling food or steaming and then adding a drizzle of oil is healthier than frying
Use extra virgin olive oil for cooking (latest research indicates that this can be used at a higher temperature than first identified), and you can combine with some sunflower oil and a small amount of butter for a slightly different flavour. Recently coconut oil has come into focus as an oil to use in the kitchen and I have been using for over a year now and love the flavour it brings to salmon and other fish.
You should not burn any oil, but maintain a temperature that cooks your meat, chicken of fish evenly. I tend to brown the meat in the pan and then transfer to the oven or microwave to finish cooking
For salads, vegetables and on toast drizzle Extra Virgin Olive oil which has not been over processed – do not be tempted to use the light versions on offer as these have been industrialised. Just use the real stuff but a little less. You can now also buy Walnut oil and my favourite which is Avocado oil. Buy organic and whilst more expensive you do find a little goes a long way.
Coconut oil is produced by pressing the white meat from coconuts to produce what is a ‘saturated’ fat which is one that we are normally told to restrict in our diet. However it is claimed that the health benefits of coconut oil is down to its medium chain triglycerides compared to the longer chain forms in vegetable oils, dairy and meat fat.
The health benefits that are mentioned include raising HDL (healthy cholesterol levels) making it better for the heart, brain health, weight loss and thyroid health.
It is important to remember that it is still a fat, and whilst it is important to ingest a healthy balance of good fats, it should only be used in moderation. As with olive oil, a little goes a long way.
One of the most popular cholesterol myths… Eggs and your diet.
For many years the advice from nutritional experts is to remove eggs from your diet if you have high cholesterol.. Actually there is very little connection between the dietary cholesterol to be found in eggs and blood cholesterol.
If you are not eating a high proportion of processed foods containing high levels of Trans fats and sugars, eating an egg a day is actually going to be beneficial.
The liver produces much more cholesterol than you can consume from eggs or other animal products, however if the rest of your diet is full of industrially manufactured foods, then your LDL – Low density lipoprotein is going to be high, and that is the harmful form of cholesterol.
An egg has so much more than healthy fats going for it. The yolk is vitamin rich with A, D and E. Especially in the winter months when we are missing sunshine to work with our bodies to produce the essential vitamin D it is important to find another source and eggs are one of the few that are available. Eggs are also a great source of readily available and easy to prepare protein.
If you are in the process of losing weight then eating an egg, several times a week should be part of your healthy eating plan.
Apart from chocolate… Cheese is probably one of my favourite foods. Unfortunately like chocolate it is something that once I start eating I find it difficult to stop. I did an experiment last summer when I was carrying 14lbs more than I wanted. I ate my normal diet for six weeks and just stopped eating my usual daily ration of cheese. I lost the 14lbs in four weeks.
I do eat an ounce three of four times a week, but I make sure that it is from grass fed dairy rather than corn fed. There is an important distinction. Only grass fed dairy or animal protein contains sufficient amounts of Vitamin K2.
The same applies to real butter – I eat the real thing but make sure it comes from grass fed dairy again. A scrape goes a long way and tastes so much better than margarine.
Research into Vitamin K2 is ongoing and is very exciting.
Dementia – including Alzheimers and neurological diseases including Parkinsons with the vitamin being identified as deficient in patients suffering from irregularities in brain chemistry.
Kidney disease – Most patients with stage 5 chronic kidney disease (CKD) suffer from extensive vascular calcifications.4 Matrix Gla protein (MGP) is a powerful inhibitor of vascular calcification, and requires vitamin K2 to be fully activated
Cancer -In recent years, various reports have shown that vitamin K2 has anti-oncogenic effects in various cancer cell lines, including leukemia, lung cancer, ovarian cancer, and hepatocellular cancer. Although the exact mechanisms by which vitamin K2 exert its antitumor effect are still unclear, processes, such as cell cycle arrest and apoptosis, appear to contribute to the therapeutic effects of vitamin K2.
To read the full report on the research: K2 research ongoing
If you suffer from diabetes the body is less able to maintain a balanced cholesterol level with an increase in LDL and VLDL (Very low density lipo protein) this leads to an increased risk of heart muscle damage and it is important that you have your levels monitored regularly.
Having said that, it is even more important that you stay away from processed foods, cook from scratch using healthy fats. It is also essential to stay away from high sugar content white carbohydrates instead using a moderate amount of wholegrains. Whilst monitoring by your doctor is available after diagnosis, there are millions of people in the world you are pre-diabetic and are not aware of it.
This is why it is important to take responsibility and visit a pharmacy who offers a panel of tests for Blood Pressure, Blood Sugar and Cholesterol at least once a year to have a clear measurement of these key health indicators. That puts you in the driving seat and enables you to take action as well as work with your doctor to get you back within healthy ranges.
Dietary and lifestyle changes to improve unhealthy cholesterol levels.
Though the first few days might be tough.. it is important that you cut back the refined sugar in your diet and the amount of industrially produced foods in packets, tins and jars you are consuming. This includes shop bought cakes, biscuits, white bread (buy wholegrain) white rice, white pasta, icecream, sweets, milk chocolate, processed cereals, and for six weeks alcohol.
Cook your foods fresh and from scratch using herbs and seasoning to flavour.
- Eat lots of vegetables and moderate fruits such as apples and blueberries daily
- Eat onions daily both raw and cooked and also some garlic as both may have a cholesterol lowering effect. I certainly eat an onion a day and believe they do help. ( Research)
- I have been drinking a large glass of coconut water (a brand that uses just coconut water without additives) the potassium it contains aids in management of Blood Pressure and also in lowering LDL and increasing HDL levels of Cholestoerol. More clinical studies are being done into coconut water but here is an example. Beneficial effects of Coconut Water
- Eat a handful of wholegrains daily such as brown rice, porridge oats homemade bread (2 slices) each day. It is important not to give up carbohydrates completely as wholegrains provide fibre and B vitamins.
- Cook with healthy fats
- Use real butter and moderate amounts of cheese three times a week.
- Enjoy eggs, chicken, oily fish three times a week and other meat proteins twice a week.
- Enjoy a meat free day twice a week substituting with avocados and other omega 3 rich foods.
- Take a 30 minute walk every day.
- Eat a couple of squares of 70% dark chocolate every day.
- Drink green tea preferably, three cups a day and a cup of black coffee with a dash of milk is not going to break the process. In fact green tea has been the subject of a number of studies which show promising results in regard to lowering LDL cholesterol.. I drink three cups a day and consider it along with coconut water to be effective components in my daily diet in maintaining both BP and LDL.
- Keep hydrated with water.
Cholesterol Levels measurements.
You should fast before a cholesterol test for at least 12 hours, and I suggest that you skip the cheese the day before and have a plant based meal.. fats you have eaten do register in the test so having a Big Mac fully loaded is not going to be helpful!
Blood cholesterol is measured in units called millimoles per litre of blood, (mmol/L) UK – you will note that some articles on cholesterol levels will recommend that normal levels should be lower than the recommended levels for healthy or at risk adults.
However, this may encourage people to drive their total levels down too far and puts them at risk of other diseases that result from a deficiency of cholesterol.
It is important to have a picture of where you are with regard to measurements such as cholesterol. If you do need to reduce the levels of the more harmful form then you can agree a target with your doctor, get help from a nutritionist or a the very least do your research into the diet that can help you reduce your cholesterol healthily.
I cannot stress enough how important the role of cholesterol is for the health of our vital organs including the brain. A sensible diet over 6 to 12 weeks is far better for your body than a crash diet where all fats have been removed completely.
5mmol/L for healthy adults
4mmol/L for those at high risk
5.6mmol/L to 6.2mmol/L considered borderline high
Above 6.2mmol/L needs to be lowered.
LDL does have a role in functions within the body and it is only when it is oxidised by free radicals resulting from unhealthy food choices that it becomes dangerous.
3mmol/L for healthy adults and 2mmol/L for those who have high risk factors for heart disease.
3.4-4.1 mmol/L borderline high
4.1-4.9 mmol/ high
Above 4.9 mmol/L very high.
Ideally the level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) should be above 1.6 mmol/L.
I suggest that if you are making changes to your diet that you have your cholesterol checked prior to starting.. and then six weeks later. If there has been a significant improvement you can introduce some of your favourites back in again, in moderation such as a glass of red wine. But try to avoid industrial foods and stick to your cook from scratch approach.
To summarise –
- Do not take healthy natural fats out of your diet
- Use unprocessed, natural ingredients in your cooking and avoid industrialised foods.
- Use healthy fats and oils in moderation and instead of cooking with fats every day, eat avocados, eat walnuts and oily fish.
- Eat plenty of vegetables including those high in fibre.
- Enjoy seasonal fruits,
- Eat wholegrains for their fibre and B Vitamins,
- Enjoy an egg at least three times a week.
- If you are going to eat cheese or other high fat dairy products, opt for grass fed dairy to obtain the Vitamin K2 from these sources.
I recently ran a series that might help you get started on becoming healthier:Project 101 – Resilience – An opportunity to get fighting fit – Round Up
©sally cronin Just Food for Health 1998 – 2020
I am a qualified nutritional therapist with twenty-two years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines and posts here on Smorgasbord.
If you would like to browse my health books and fiction you can find them here: My books and reviews 2020
Your feedback is always welcome and if you do find that following any of the posts that I have shared are beneficial then it would be great to hear about it. If you have any questions you can email me on email@example.com.