Not all cholesterol is bad

Don't aim to completely eliminate cholesterol from your diet. Your body needs it

woman drinking milkIt's a misconception that cholesterol is not good for our body. Cholesterol is a sticky substance that is produced in the liver. It is similar to fat and is substance is present in all the cells of our body. Our body needs cholesterol for important functions such as increasing muscle strength and body's inflammatory response. It also acts as an antioxidant. It helps keep the cell walls healthy, it's required to produce hormones, vitamin D and bile acids [which help digest fat]. In fact, if your levels of cholesterol dip, your muscles become easily sore, stiff and inflamed with activity.

What is not good for our body is having excess amounts of cholesterol as this excess amount starts clogging the arteries, thus increasing your risk of stroke and heart attack.

It also depends on which type of cholesterol you have in excess. Low density lipoproteins [LDL] and High-density lipoproteins [HDL] are the two types of cholesterol. LDL is known as the bad cholesterol because it clogs the artery, while HDL is the good cholesterol as it cleans the arteries. It is important to maintain a balance between HDL and LDL. Your LDL should be around 100 mg/dl and HDL should be over 55mg/dl.

The amount of cholesterol our body makes can increase beyond healthy limits if we eat excess amounts of foods rich in saturated fat. Usually, dairy products and meat contain more saturated fats. These foods also contain some amount of cholesterol. To maintain a healthy cholesterol balance, limit your intake of butter, peanut butter, whole milk, liver, red meat and egg yolk. Also restrict intake of cakes, bakery items, cookies and cream.

Sometimes people feel that if they replace butter with margarine, it helps lower their cholesterol intake. However, this isn't true. Margarine is all trans fat, which is worse than cholesterol present in the butter. Vanaspati too falls in this category.

Most margarine is hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, which means that hydrogen has been added to the oil when making margarine. But when hydrogen is added to vegetable oils, it leads to formation of trans fat. Trans fat is accused of increasing the LDL [bad cholesterol], while bringing down your HDL [good cholesterol]. It's also said to thicken blood platelets.

Many people don't pay heed to their cholesterol if they are thin, the premise being that only fat people need to worry about cholesterol. It is true that excess body fat increases your risk of cholesterol problems. But those with a low BMI [thin people] can also have high cholesterol. Fat or thin, we all need to keep a check on our blood cholesterol levels.

In fact, you should never wait for an indication of heart trouble to start monitoring your cholesterol. Altering your food habits and making conscious efforts in prevention should be done so that your cholesterol levels never become a problem.

You should exercise particular restraint when eating food that has lots of oil. Even with the best of oils, if the quantity of oil is more, it can raise the triglyceride levels in your blood, which is equally bad.

When shopping for food items, also be particular about the food labels. While it is safe to buy items that are marked 'low cholesterol', you must also watch out for the total fat content, sugars and carbs in it. Also, don't get fooled into believing that low fat means low cal or low cholesterol.

These terms do not mean the same thing—they are three different parameters. Buy food that is low in cholesterol, fat and has complex carbohydrates.

A lot of young people think they need to enjoy life now and think about heart attack and cholesterol after 50. But there's news for them. Coronary artery disease starts at an early age with people who have a family history of heart trouble and in those who lead a poor lifestyle with no exercise.

Difference between Natural cholesterol and dietary cholesterol

The body makes it own cholesterol, which is called natural cholesterol. We also introduce cholesterol into our body through our diet, which is known as dietary cholesterol.

Whether natural or dietary, the cholesterol after a certain level is atherogenic, which means it leads to thickening of the arterial wall. This is especially true with LDL, also known as the bad cholesterol.

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Rekha Sharma
Rekha Sharma, RD, is National President Indian Dietetic Association and member of the Expert Panel for IndianWomensHealth.com. She is also the Director, Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics, Diabetes Foundation [India].

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