Not a month goes by without hearing about bad cholesterol, good cholesterol, and even very bad or very, very bad cholesterol.
You can’t make this stuff up. Most of us just came to grips with margarine, which was supposed to be good for us, but it’s actually bad for us. And butter is bad as well, but not as bad as margarine. Got that?
I don’t think there is actually a conspiracy to confuse, some dark plot to keep health information securely inside the physician’s guild. It is rather the nature of research and of humans.
Scientists get understandably excited when their life’s work comes to fruition. They want their answer to be a really important answer, one that will remain a cornerstone of medicine for half an eon.
Those hopes can make a researcher’s conclusion seem much more important than it perhaps really is. Then the medical media machine gets busy, breathlessly reporting every new health finding.
The result can be that some health-conscious people, thinking they are prudent by keeping up on health news, become frustrated by conflicting information.
Cholesterol is an important molecule in our bodies; the base molecule for many hormones. Estrogen, progesterone, cortisol and testosterone are all made from cholesterol. Without it, you wouldn’t know which sex you were, among other problems.
Your body is able to make cholesterol for this purpose. So dietary cholesterol is not only unnecessary, it can be harmful.
Cholesterol does not go round and round in your blood stream buck naked. It travels in various packages, which have different destinations, and are named by size.
Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is the classic “bad cholesterol” that blocks (plugs) blood vessels. When the blood vessels are blocked by cholesterol in the brain they cause a stroke. When the same thing happens in the heart, the block causes a heart attack. Very LDL (VLDL) is smaller than LDL, but is considered bad cholesterol.
High density lipoprotein (HDL), the classic “good cholesterol,” is the street sweeper of the cholesterol world. Its function is to scavenge cholesterol from the vessels, and recycle it to make hormones or be excreted by the liver.
If you hope to live a long time, getting your cholesterol under control is one way to do it.
Here is the next level of complication. Animal fat is highly saturated, and is the biggest contributor to LDL and heart disease. One way to get LDL cholesterol down is to remove as much red meat and dairy from the diet as possible.
Less saturated fat means less cholesterol and LDLs, which equates to having less chance of heart disease.
Exercise has many benefits, and one of them is reduction of LDL, and an increase in the good cholesterol (HDL), which is a double-down on benefits.
Alcohol in modest amounts raises HDLs also. One drink a day is the correct dose. If you want your drink to be even more effective, try red wine. Besides increasing your HDL, it is full of other heart healthy pigments, another bonus.
Body weight also affects cholesterol. Obesity is associated with both increased cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. Diet and exercise can reverse obesity. Fortunately, the cholesterol in your blood changes faster than your body weight when you start on a diet.
While double cheese burgers and pizza are best saved for special treats, there are other foods that provide many benefits. Nuts in general are low in cholesterol and saturated fat, yet high in unsaturated fat and protein.
If all this seems a little unnecessarily dense, that is the nature of the beast. Perhaps math is more straightforward. Less Red Meat + more exercise + a little wine and almonds = long life = a fighting chance at better health.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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