Cholesterol is a type of fat. The fats we looked at last time (saturated and unsaturated) come in straight chains. In your body, these fats join together in groups of three to form triglycerides. Cholesterol has a different structure, and is called a sterol.
|Saturated and unsaturated fats||Cholesterol|
All fats, including cholesterol, are important in our bodies. Our bodies can make most of these fats that we need, but we also get some from our diet. We can’t make the polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 and omega-6, so these need to come from our food. Fats are important for our energy, our brains, our skin, and the health of our cells. Cholesterol is actually one of the main ingredients that goes into making Vitamin D and hormones like estrogen and testosterone.
Just like oil and water don’t mix in your salad dressing, fat and water don’t mix in your body. Fats are made in your liver and need to be transported in your blood to other areas of your body. In order to do this they combine with proteins to form lipoproteins. There are two main types of lipoproteins, and you may have heard of them – LDL and HDL. HDL stands for high-density lipoproteins. These are made up of mainly proteins with some triglycerides and cholesterol. LDL stands for low-density lipoproteins. LDL are larger and heavier than HDL, and are made up of mainly cholesterol with some proteins and triglycerides.
You may have heard these lipoproteins called “good” and “bad” cholesterol. HDL is commonly called “good” and LDL is commonly called “bad”. This is because researchers think that LDL cholesterol gets deposited on the walls of arteries and causes plaques and clogged arteries, which can lead to heart disease and strokes. HDL is thought to keep LDL from sticking to the walls of arteries. When your doctor checks your cholesterol level, he is actually checking your levels of HDL, LDL, and triglycerides. Everybody needs to have some of all of these types of fats, and they should be in a certain ratio.
The American Heart Association recommends for adults that total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL; LDL should be less than 100 mg/dL, and HDL should be at least 60 mg/dL or higher. Triglycerides should be less than 150 mg/dL. These are basic recommendations – be sure to check with your doctor for his recommendations for you.
How does someone get high cholesterol?
High cholesterol (the LDL or HDL type) can be because of two reasons – either you are getting too much in your diet, or your body is making too much. Cholesterol is in many animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy. People with diets high in these types of foods might have high cholesterol levels in their blood. But your genetics play a big role in regulating your cholesterol levels, too. Some people are very good at metabolizing cholesterol, or don’t make very much on their own. These people might have very low cholesterol levels even if they eat a diet very high in meat, eggs, and dairy. On the other hand, some people naturally make more cholesterol than they need, or store too much. Someone like this might have very high cholesterol levels even if they rarely eat foods that contain cholesterol.
How else can my diet affect my cholesterol level?
The American Heart Association recommends a diet that is low in saturated fats and high in unsaturated fats (both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated). Many foods that are high in saturated fat are also high in cholesterol, so this can increase your cholesterol level if you consistently eat foods that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. When you choose unsaturated fats over saturated fats (like substituting olive oil for butter), this may help to lower cholesterol levels in your blood.
The bottom line is we all need to have some fats in our diet, and everything should be eaten in moderation. Every type of fat has 9 calories per gram (compared to 4 calories per gram in proteins and carbohydrates). Eating too much (or too little) of any kind of fat can lead to weight gain and health risks.
It is important to follow the advice of your doctor if you are overweight, have other health risks, or are concerned about your heart health. Remember, I’m not a physician or a nutritionist, so please consult your doctor before starting a new eating plan.