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Recently I have had a few people ask me if they must avoid cholesterol rich foods like eggs, meat and dairy? Will eating saturated fat and cholesterol-rich foods cause cholesterol levels to rise and make us more susceptible to heart disease? Is cholesterol the real culprit behind heart disease?

Cholesterol is arguably one of the most misunderstood substances! There is so much confusion out there! All these questions kindled my desire to do some reading on cholesterol and clear some of the myths about cholesterol. So here we go…

First of all, what exactly is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of lipid. It’s a waxy, fat-like substance. It comes from two sources. Your liver makes most of the cholesterol you need. The remainder of the cholesterol in your body comes from foods from animals. For example, meat, poultry, sea food and dairy products all contain dietary cholesterol. When you consume extra cholesterol, your body compensates by reducing the amount of cholesterol that it naturally makes in the liver. In contrast, when dietary cholesterol intake is low, your body increases cholesterol production to ensure there is always enough of this vital substance. Only about 20% of cholesterol in your system comes from dietary sources. The rest is produced by your liver.

You may know of two main types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Actually, LDL and HDL are not types of cholesterol. Since cholesterol doesn’t mix well with liquids (blood), it’s transported by particles called lipoproteins – LDL and HDL. Lipoproteins are molecules made of fat (lipids) and protein, and serve as vehicles for your cholesterol to travel through the blood.

What does HDL cholesterol do?

HDL clears used/damaged cholesterol from all over the body via the liver. HDL may therefore prevent the buildup of plaque in the arterial walls and in turn protect your arteries, and protect you from atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. It is considered the “good” cholesterol, and higher levels are better. The higher your HDL cholesterol numbers, the lower your risk is for heart disease, vascular disease, and stroke.

You can improve HDL levels by adopting a heart-healthy diet low in trans-fat and high in fiber. Aerobic exercise can also have positive effects on HDL. That exercise can be as simple as increasing the amount of walking you do everyday.

Now, what does LDL cholesterol do?

LDL is considered the “bad” cholesterol. It carries cholesterol from the liver to each and every cell via your arteries, where it may collect in the vessel walls and contribute to plaque formation, known as atherosclerosis.

For LDL, the lower the number the better. Obesity, a large waist circumference, a sedentary lifestyle, or a diet rich in red meat, full-fat dairy, saturated fat, trans fats, and processed foods can lead to high LDL cholesterol.

Lifestyle and diet changes are the main ways to prevent or lower high LDL. A trial of eating a low-fat diet, regular aerobic activity, maintaining a healthy weight, and smaller waist circumference is an appropriate first step. If this does not work then you may need to consult your doctor for medical intervention. Rarely, very high LDL is genetic and passed down in families. This is called familial hypercholesterolemia and is caused by a genetic mutation that decreases the liver’s ability to clear excess cholesterol. This condition can lead to very high LDL levels, and increase your risk of heart disease.

Having said all that, Holistic nutritionists and other alternative healing modalities believe that cholesterol is not inherently “bad.” Your body needs it for so many vital functions… and for that reason we were given the ability to manufacture it within our own body!

  • Cholesterol is part of each and every cell of the body. It is a very important component of all cell membranes.
  • Cholesterol is nature’s repair substance, used to repair wounds, including wear & tear and injury or any kind of irritations in the arteries.
  • Many important hormones are made of cholesterol, including hormones that help us deal with stress, and all the sex hormones, such as testosterone, estrogen and progesterone.
  • Cholesterol is vital to the functioning of the brain and nervous system. It protects us against depression; it plays a role in the utilization of serotonin, the body’s “feel-good” chemical.
  • The bile salts, needed for the digestion of fats, are made from cholesterol as one of its components.
  • Cholesterol is the precursor of vitamin D, which is formed by the action of sunlight on cholesterol in the skin.

If Cholesterol is not the culprit behind heart disease, then what is the real problem?

Many scientists have put forth valid theories for the epidemic of heart disease in western societies….

  • Deficiency of vitamins A and D: Back in the 1930s, Weston A. Price, DDS, observed that rates of heart attack rose during periods of the year when levels of these fat-soluble vitamins went down.
  • Deficiencies of vitamins B6, B12 and Folic acid: Kilmer McCully, MD, PhD, demonstrated that these deficiencies lead to elevated levels of homocysteine, a marker for heart disease.
  • Trans fats: Fred Kummerow, PhD, and many others have linked heart disease to the replacement of saturated fats with trans fats; saturated fats in moderation actually protect against heart disease in many ways.
  • STRESS: Heart attacks often occur after a period of stress, which depletes the body of essential vitamins and minerals.

Here are some general recommendations for supporting a healthy cardiovascular system….

  • First of all don’t worry about dietary cholesterol—the stress of unnecessary worry can contribute to heart disease. Eat mindfully, be present while eating, enjoy your meals and listen to your body. It tells you what it needs and it knows how to heal itself!
  • 50% of your plate must be full of fresh organic vegetables that will give you all the fibre and micronutrients your body needs to function optimally as well as take care of cholesterol and prevent it from sticking to the walls of the arteries!
  • Eat foods rich in folic acid, vitamin B6 & vitamin B12.
  • Eat liver loving foods- such as cruciferous vegetables, green leafy vegetables, Spices like turmeric, ginger, garlic. It’s important to understand that the liver not only produces cholesterol, but it’s also part of the digestive system. It’s the the most important organ of detox! If the liver becomes overloaded with toxins, its functioning can become impaired. When this happens, it disturbs not only its role in digestion & metabolism but also its ability to regulate cholesterol levels in the blood.
  • Avoid processed food & deep-fried foods, especially foods containing processed vegetable oils and Trans fats. Now, Trans fats are a modern invention, formed by adding hydrogen to liquid oils. These trans fats cannot be digested by the body and thus create Toxins in the body. They are considered to be far more harmful than saturated fats in disturbing the ratio of HDL to LDL cholesterol.
  • Margarine and vegetable shortening are trans fats, so you’ll want to stop using them. Because most packaged foods and restaurant fried foods contain trans fats, the easiest way to avoid these harmful fats is to stop buying packaged foods such as doughnuts, cakes, pies, cookies, pastries, pizza dough, crackers, biscuits, and fried foods. Look for labels such as hydrogenated vegetable oil, partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrolyzed vegetable oil and partially-hydrolyzed vegetable oil — as these are all names for trans fats. And avoid eating fried food at restaurants, especially fast food restaurants, as trans fats are commonly used for frying French fries and other foods.
  • Avoid cooking with polyunsaturated oils. Most polyunsaturated vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, sesame) are processed with chemicals or heat, and their nutritional value is destroyed. They end up creating free radicals, contributing to oxidized fats & cholesterol, in the body. This can happen even if you use cold-pressed oils for frying or cooking foods at high temperature.
  • Avoid eating too much fat overall, even if it’s the good kind of fat. While all of these factors can cause high cholesterol, the most dangerous combination is eating large quantities of unhealthy fat, which can happen easily if you eat fast foods or processed, packaged foods on a daily basis.
  • Monounsaturated fats are recommended, as they reduce total cholesterol levels and have the added advantage of raising HDL cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends that you include 10 to 15 percent of your total daily calories in monounsaturated fats such as olive oil.
  • If you want to eat meat, go for it from grass-fed animals, but in moderation.
  • Eat plenty of wild-caught seafood. It is rich in heart healthy omega 3 fatty acids.
  • Go for free range organic eggs. Eat them in their whole form. Do not just eat egg whites alone.  Egg yolks are rich in many nutrients that could actually aid in the metabolism of cholesterol. But again, moderation is the key here!
  • Maintain a healthy weight—neither too heavy nor too thin.
  • Engage in moderate exercise outdoors.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Avoid exposure to environmental toxins as much as possible.
  • Follow an ayurvedic diet and lifestyle i.e Eating the right food for your body type.
  • Eating too much (above digestive capacity), eating too little (below the digestive capacity), and eating faulty food combinations (against the digestive capacity) could lead to toxicity in the body- the root cause of all diseases as per Ayurveda!      
  • As a registered holistic nutritionist & an ayurvedic lifestyle consultant I personally am in favor of Ghee and olive oil.
  • Ghee, or clarified butter, is made by boiling butter and separating out the milk solids. What is left is a clear, pure fat that can be heated to high temperatures without destroying its natural qualities. Ghee is the most easily digestible fat, and it contains Vitamins A and E and acts as an antioxidant. It is also a highly-intelligent type of fat, because it is a food that converts quickly into ojas, the master coordinator that integrates consciousness, mind and body. Ojas is another word for nature’s intelligence in the body. It can reach deeper tissues of the body and along with it, it carries the therapeutic qualities of the spices used in cooking to each and every cell of the body.
  • Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, which means that it actually lowers cholesterol and triglycerides. But it is important to choose first cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil, which means that the oil is pressed from the olives without heat or unnatural processing. This method of processing has been followed for thousands of years, and it doesn’t destroy the nutritional quality of the oil, unlike modern processing methods, which involve high heat and chemical additives.
  • It’s also important not to heat olive oil at high temperatures for cooking. Use it for baking, for salad dressings, and for low-heat sautéing of spices and vegetables. If you need to heat the oil at higher temperatures, it’s better to use ghee.
  • Even though ghee and olive oil are nutritious and intelligent fats, it’s possible to cause high cholesterol levels by eating too much of them. How much is too much? To understand how much, you first need to realize that not everyone is made the same. Each person has a different body type, and for some people, even one teaspoon of ghee used in cooking twice a day may be too much. If you have a Kapha imbalance or are predominantly Kapha, you probably require less fat as too much fat — even the good kind of fat — could lead to imbalances such as obesity and high cholesterol. A person with a Vata imbalance, on the other hand, needs more healthy oils and fats to stay healthy and to maintain a normal body weight.
  • Also, to digest fat, even good fats like ghee and olive oil, a person needs to have a strong agni, or digestive fire. If your agni is weak, then you are not going to be able to digest even the healthiest fats.

I know this is a lot of information ….. if you want to take home the most important points from this article….

  • Eat according to your mind body type.
  • Eat mindfully, eat in moderation and enjoy your meals.
  • Stay away from processed foods, trans fats and deep-fried foods.
  • Eat lots of vegetables to get all your micronutrients and fibre.
  • Above all, Keep your digestion strong.

If you would like help in curating a personalized diet and lifestyle regime for yourself or your loved ones, do  CONNECT with me to Book your very own private one-on-one Ayurvedic & Holistic nutrition consultation.

It is my humble wish to make Ayurveda & Holistic Nutrition available to each one of us in an easy to understand format. ‘coz if all of us are healthy at the deepest level of the soul, only then this planet will be a happier place to live! 

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Preeti Syal

The content provided in my blogs are for knowledge sharing purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.