As the cholesterol confusion persists, I wanted to give a brief, simple explanation of what is good and what is bad about cholesterol. Frustratingly, GPs and even cardiologists are often only looking at total cholesterol and possibly the HDL to LDL ratio. This is not very helpful, nor is the overly simplistic idea that LDL is bad and HDL is good.
Your liver releases LDL (cholesterol being carried by a low density lipoprotein) every second of every day. LDL carries cholesterol around the body and delivers it to the brain to do many, many, many crucial jobs. Your brain loves and needs cholesterol and it’s LDL that takes it there. There’s a lot of good science showing that LDL cholesterol in the brain is highly protective and enhances brain function especially as we age. LDL coats all your cells, ensuring good things are kept in the cell and bad things are kept out; LDL allows the sunshine to become vitamin D through your skin – vitamin D is essential for brain health, immune function, bone strength and for protection against many cancers; LDL is a key ingredient in many hormones in the body – how can LDL be bad?
HDL (high density lipo-proteins) are protective. We want plenty in the blood as it collects up any excess LDL that’s floating around and takes it back to the liver where it’s recycled. HDL is increased though diet – egg yolks are FULL of HDL! Eating more natural, healthy fats only serves to increase better cholesterol balance it doesn’t make it worse. Other animal fats are also good i.e. marbled red meat, chicken skin, butter – but the devil is in the detail.
Firstly, it’s all about the quality of the fats. You are what you eat, ate! If the animal you’re eating is full of toxins, growth hormones and antibiotics, true of intensively reared animals, the fat in these animals will be unhealthy. Outdoor reared, grass fed organic animals will have an entirely different fat profile, with healthy, helpful, nourishing components in their fat. So regular but small amounts of high quality animal products does not push up ‘bad’ cholesterol.
Having plenty of mono-unsaturates is also essential. Extra virgin olive oil, macadamia nuts, avocados – all fabulous. By the way, did you know that olive oil is averagely 20% saturated fat?
But the really big one, is what your blood sugar is doing. It is only when LDL cholesterol meets high blood sugar (glucose) that the LDL becomes oxidized, turning it sticky, nasty, inflammatory and highly damaging. Through a process called glycation, when high blood sugar meets LDL, advanced glycation end products are produced (AGEs) – think rusting.
This is what turns cholesterol into a deadly substance. Without high blood sugar, LDL doesn’t turn bad. In fact, it is now being recommended to use the HbA1c reading (12 week blood glucose measure) as a greater indicator of damaging cholesterol levels than cholesterol itself. It is a really good idea to ask for your HbA1c to be measured as this will put you in a non-diabetic, pre-diabetic or diabetic range and that will in turn tell you if your cholesterol is being turned bad or not. Otherwise, ask for your your oxidative LDL reading as this is the only really useful measure of your cholesterol. You GP may well scoff but we have to push for change as the old school view on cholesterol is not only not useful, but due to so many people being put on statins as a results of their total cholesterol, this measure of what’s healthy and what’s not is making people sicker. Statins are now being shown to greatly increase not only risk of diabetes but also neurological health, such as Parkinsons risk and risk of dementia / Alzheimer’s.
We need good fats, we need cholesterol, we don’t need sugars and starches – so get your blood glucose under control and your body will manage your cholesterol in only positive, health promoting ways.
To find out more about which fats to eat and which foods to avoid, read my new book.