September - cholesterol awareness month

September Is Cholesterol Awareness Month – Part 1

What is cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy steroid. For years we have been inundated by the message that we need to avoid cholesterol.  But what this message doesn’t tell us is that cholesterol can actually be beneficial for our body.  While we want to be aware how what we eat affects our cholesterol, we really need to understand the numbers that truly matter, your lipo-protein particle size.

In addition to being found in a variety of foods, cholesterol is produced by the liver.  It is very important for overall body health.  Measured in low-density lipoprotein (LDL), high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and triglycerides, cholesterol can accumulate in the body. This is what has so many of us scared of higher levels.  We’ve learned that HDL is good, LDL is bad, and our overall cholesterol number is critical.  However, this is not the entire picture and we’ve been looking at information that may not be complete.

Why we need cholesterol

Cholesterol is critical for good health. It’s responsible for healthy cell membranes, insulating nerve tissue,  and for the production of a wide variety of hormones (sex hormones, cortisol, corticosterone, and others). It’s important to ensure that your body has enough cholesterol for what it needs.  Too little is not healthy; without hormones, the body does not function well.  Cholesterol is also used by the body to convert sunshine to vitamin D and it helps to metabolize fat-soluble vitamins A, E and K.  Without these fat-soluble vitamins we can experience a wide variety of health issues including bone pain, muscle weakness, fatigue, and foggy thinking.

Food-based sources of cholesterol

After years of being told to avoid low-fat foods and to not eat things like eggs, seafood, and organ meats, we now know that whole food sources of cholesterol do not have much of an impact on blood levels. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “the percentage of calories from fat that you eat, whether high or low, isn’t really linked with disease.” Furthermore, these are all very healthy nutrient-dense foods. We should be including them in our diet, not avoiding them.  

It turns out that low-fat foods are the real problem.  Without good sources of healthy fat, we reduce the body’s ability to metabolize fat-soluble vitamins.  And often low-fat foods are highly manipulated with chemicals, sugars, or simple carbohydrates to make up for the loss of fat.  

Foods that impact cholesterol

The foods which do have a major impact on cholesterol include trans-fats (anything marked hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated), high-fat poor quality carbohydrates such as pastries and cookies, and high levels of alcohol consumption.  Obesity and smoking can also negatively affect cholesterol levels.

Reducing cholesterol

It is important to note that new studies show that simply reducing your cholesterol level is not sufficient to reduce your risk of heart disease.  Indeed your overall cholesterol level may not be the indicator we’ve been taught to believe it is.  While we have all heard that a cholesterol level higher than 200 is unhealthy, the truth is that just looking at your cholesterol level does not reveal the entire picture.  In the video below Drs. Stephen Sinatra and Jonny Bowden discuss what you need to know about lipoprotein particle size.

This information is covered in more detail in their book The Great Cholesterol Myth.

There is a very simple blood test which looks at the lipoprotein particles (LPP).  As the chart below clearly shows (you’ll have to click on it to enlarge it), the risk factor can vary greatly and is more dependent on the amount and size of proteins; even those with “healthy” cholesterol levels can still have an elevated risk due to their LPP.

Screen shot 2013-09-03 at 9.10.09 AM

So the important things to know about your cholesterol:

  • Don’t just on just one number, total cholesterol
  • Don’t only look at the traditional cholesterol panel (total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides)
  • Also test for lipoprotein particles
  • Include more high quality, healthy fats in your diet
  • Remove all poor-quality fats

Be sure to check out the rest of this series. Part Two – heart healthy foods and Part Three  – delicious recipes


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About Mira

Mira Dessy is The Ingredient Guru. A holistic nutrition professional, author, and a popular public speaker, she knows that it's not just what you eat, but what's in what you eat. She is the author of The Pantry Principle: how to read the label and understand what’s really in their food. Dessy is a Board Certified Holistic Health Practitioner whose mission is to educate and empower consumers. She curates the Lean Clean Green Subscription box, the premier, organic, earth-friendly, healthy, sustainable subscription box which can be found online at