Cholesterol can be a confusing subject. You have probably heard that there is both good and bad cholesterol, but what does that mean?
First, let us address what cholesterol is and what its role is in the body. Cholesterol is a steroid that becomes part of the membranes, or outer coverings, of cells. Cholesterol has an essential function in our bodies, because it is an important component in the construction of certain hormones and bile salts. Cholesterol also serves as a waterproofing substance on the skin and is a precursor of Vitamin D3.
From where does cholesterol come? Dietary cholesterol comes from animal products—both meats and dairy sources. This is because every animal cell contains cholesterol. Cholesterol is not found in plant foods.
You may ask, if I am a vegan (someone who does not eat any meat or dairy products), how do I get cholesterol in my body? Our bodies manufacture cholesterol from fats that we ingest. In fact, only about 20 percent of the cholesterol in the blood circulation of people who eat animal products comes from dietary sources. It is no problem for vegans to manufacture all the cholesterol they need for survival and health, as long as they include plant fats in their diets. Only a small to moderate amount of those fats is necessary for cholesterol production.
LDL and HDL
Next, let us consider the different types of cholesterol and what they mean to us. You may have heard of lipoproteins. Lipoproteins are a combination of lipids (fats) and protein that also contain cholesterol. Lipoproteins are generally classified according to size and the proportion of lipids that they contain. The most commonly known types are low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) and high-density lipoproteins (HDLs).
LDLs are made up mostly of cholesterol. LDLs deliver cholesterol to the peripheral tissues of the body, such as the arms and legs. Because the cholesterol in the LDL package sometimes sticks in the arteries, LDL cholesterol is called the bad cholesterol.
HDLs are made up of a fairly equal balance of lipids (largely cholesterol) and protein. The main purpose of an HDL molecule is to transport excess cholesterol back from the peripheral tissues to the liver, where it is stored, or to the bile, where it is excreted from the body. Because of this function, HDLs are generally labeled as good cholesterol.
You can remember which type is “good” or “bad” by thinking that low-density things float—fat also floats—and we do not want it sticking to our arteries. Therefore, low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) are the “bad” kind.
Currently, doctors consider persons with a total cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or above to be at risk for heart and artery disease. LDLs are optimal at less than 100 mg/dL. HDLs are the opposite, with higher levels considered better than lower levels. HDLs should be at 60 mg/dL or more for optimal heart health. Another form of lipids, triglycerides, should be below 150 mg/dL. In the United States, 105 million people have total cholesterol levels of 200 mg/dL or higher.
One type of disease associated with cholesterol is atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Almost every adult living in the developed nations has atherosclerosis to some degree. Even American children have been found to have early stages of this disease. Atherosclerosis occurs when LDLs dump their load of cholesterol on the walls of arteries. Eventually this build-up, or plaque, grows larger and larger, narrowing the artery and obstructing the flow of blood. If an artery to the heart is blocked, a heart attack can occur. If an artery to the brain is blocked, a stroke may occur.
What You Can Do
Cholesterol levels can be maintained at a healthy level through a healthy diet and lifestyle. Since cholesterol is found only in animal products, consume a plant-based diet to lower your risk of developing high cholesterol. Some people who eat meat purposely choose chicken over beef, but chicken actually contains just as much cholesterol as beef. Since there is no good cholesterol found in foods, it is wise to avoid the foods that contain it.
People who are not overweight, who exercise, and who do not smoke tend to have higher levels of HDLs (the “good” cholesterol). Saturated fats raise cholesterol and are found in animal products and a few plant sources such as coconut, palm, and hydrogenated oils and chocolate. One study has shown that people who adopted a vegetarian diet automatically reduced their saturated fat intake by 26 percent and had a significant drop in their cholesterol levels. A moderate- to low-fat diet is healthier. There also are oils that are healthier than others. Olive oil, for instance, can be beneficial in moderate amounts. Ellen White states that olive oil, “as eaten in the olive, is far preferable to animal oil or fat.” The Ministry of Healing, 298.
Some people have a hereditary predisposition toward developing heart disease and atherosclerosis. As a result, some of them can be vegetarians or even vegans and still have to keep a close eye on their cholesterol levels, because they tend to produce too much of it.
Eating a diet high in fiber will help. Fiber not only reduces the amount of cholesterol absorbed when eaten (again, not a problem with vegans), but also reduces the amount of cholesterol that the body manufactures. A plant-based diet can easily be high in fiber, but there is no fiber in animal products.
Other things you can do to help lower cholesterol levels are increase exercise, achieve and maintain your ideal weight, do not skip meals, and reduce your stress levels. Yet again, God’s laws of health help protect us from illness and disease. “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden [part] thou shalt make me to know wisdom.” Psalm 51:6.
Sheryle Beaudry, a certified teletriage nurse, writes from Estacada, Oregon where she lives with her husband and twin daughters. She may be contacted by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. If there is a health-related question you would like answered in LandMarks, please e-mail your question to: email@example.com, or mail it to: LandMarks, Steps to Life, P. O. Box 782828, Wichita, KS 67278.