Does Cholesterol Still Matter?

October 30, 2018 in Health by Joyce Bunderson

Do you remember when cholesterol was the trendy word of the day? I remember it was ubiquitous; almost every package of food had some kind of cholesterol claim – low cholesterol or no cholesterol. I don’t know an exact date of when it began, but it was going on in the 1970s and is still going on. One thing I do know is that it was a messed up campaign. Food processors would put “no cholesterol” claims on oatmeal and peanut butter, for example – non-animal foods that never had cholesterol. Of course there is still some of the residual of the ‘cholesterol trend;’ but the food processors have largely moved on to new trendy words (like Gluten-Free) to slap on their packaging.

The fact is, the amount of cholesterol flowing in our veins, especially the low-density types that contribute to artery-clogging atherosclerosis; can predict cardiovascular heart disease, the number one cause of death in the world. And how we eat definitely impacts the cholesterol flowing in our veins. That fact has not gone away.

There are two effective dietary strategies to lower risk of cardiovascular heart disease; one is to decrease consumption of foods that stimulate the formation of cholesterol; and the second, is to increase the foods that can actually lower it. Keep in mind that eating cholesterol-laden foods is not the main way to increase cholesterol in your bloodstream.

First, let’s address the best-known method – avoiding saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats commonly found in red meat; processed meats; whole-fat dairy; and palm and coconut oil frequently used by food processors are the ones to avoid (read the label and don’t buy them). The FDA has banned trans fats; so these harmful by-products of the hydrogenation of oils should no longer be a problem.

The second dietary strategy is much more interesting. There are a variety of ways to lower cholesterol. I think the most interesting is using soluble fiber (fiber that dissolves in water). If you’re interested, in exactly how that works, I’ll share a brief description.

Our liver uses circulating cholesterol to make bile acid; the bile acid is used to help break down dietary fats in the small intestine. Normally, that bile acid is recycled and used again. But when there’s lots of soluble fiber in the intestine, the soluble fiber attaches to the bile acid and it piggybacks along in the intestine, being lost as waste. Since the body still needs bile acid, the liver has to use new cholesterol from the blood to make the bile acid; essentially lowering cholesterol. This soluble fiber strategy only lowers LDL cholesterol a little. But added with decreasing saturated fat, both methods are helpful.

“So which foods have soluble fiber?” you ask. Probably the most well known is oatmeal. It’s best known because Quaker Oats advertised it heavily. In this case, it was not false or hyped advertizing. This morning our breakfast was oatmeal, as it frequently is in cooler weather. Today we had fresh-diced Roma apple, sprinkled with cinnamon and sliced almonds and nonfat milk. When I was eating the steamy delicious breakfast, I was certainly not thinking about lowering my cholesterol, but looking back, that’s what was happening.

Barley is another grain with a significant amount of soluble fiber. Just a little note here: Appropriate amount and kinds of both soluble and insoluble fiber are good for us. Fiber has benefits beyond lowering cholesterol. It increases insulin sensitivity and lowers triglycerides (a different cardiovascular risk if too high.)

Fruit rich in pectin, another type of soluble fiber is also beneficial. To name a few of these fruits: Apples, pears, guavas, plums, avocado, figs and citrus fruits. Other fruit contains soluble fiber too, but not quite as much: strawberries, bananas, nectarines, apricots and grapes.

Five vegetables that are especially high in soluble fiber are Brussels sprouts, carrots, sweet potatoes, eggplant and okra.

Beans are not only nutritional champions, but also winners in providing soluble fiber. Drain a can of your choice of beans and sprinkle them on a salad or add to a soup. So easy! All beans are excellent, including soybeans.

Nuts are good for our hearts – probably because of their phytonutrients and monounsaturated fats; but in addition they provide both soluble and insoluble fiber. Yippee for nuts!!!

Fatty fish (mackerel, sardines, salmon, tuna to name a few) help you move toward a healthy cardiovascular system in more than one way. One way is that fish often replaces red meat – so right off the top you’re getting fewer saturated fat building blocks for making cholesterol. Another way fatty fish helps your heart and veins is by the cholesterol-lowering omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, the omega-3s reduce triglycerides and support normal heart rhythms. So, hurray for fish!!!

Some of us are genetically more likely to respond to what we eat; but since we can’t change our genes let’s focus of what we can change. We can choose to make healthier choices at the table. We should not forget that extra weight increases the damaging low-density cholesterol; and not exercising keeps the protective high-density cholesterol down. Today’s a good day to take steps toward making changes in exercise, weight management and food choices.

I know when you look back to this article you probably notice that it’s another way of giving the same message. It’s almost funny how the types of foods that lower LDL cholesterol are the same types of foods that are advised for other health benefits. Eating a primarily, plant-based diet, with plenty of fruits and vegetables, beans and nuts, fish, and whole grains instead of highly refined so-called “foods’ is an important part of heart health and of staying healthy in general.

Today, may I tack on a postscript? One of the reasons that cholesterol is no longer the most popular trendy word on food packages is that so many people are taking statins. Taking statins is a very attractive option; how much easier than popping a pill can it get? But, if like me, you’d like to avoid the side effects risk of muscle problems, intensified asthma, liver problems, eye problems and maybe even depression, you may want to work with your physician and begin working on your lifestyle – diet and exercise.