What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance made in nearly all of our organs and is vital (in small amounts) for the body. It is used by our bodies to maintain cell membranes, and produce bile, some hormones and vitamin D. About ¾ of our cholesterol comes from our bodies, and the rest comes from the food we eat. Cholesterol is packaged up and carried around the blood in small globules called lipoproteins which are mainly composed of a combination of protein, cholesterol and fatty acids. There are three main types of lipoproteins: VLDL, which is composed mainly of fatty acids; LDL, which is derived from VLDL and composed mainly of cholesterol; and HDL, which is composed primarily of protein. LDL is our “bad” cholesterol which causes problems and HDL is our “good” cholesterol which actually sends LDL back to the liver for breakdown and removal.
You must be thinking “so why does everyone rave on about cholesterol being bad for you our bodies need it?”. Well, when blood cholesterol levels are too high, it can cause some pretty significant problems. Any excess LDL that our body does not need will remain in the blood and over time, can build up on the artery walls in the form of plaque (a fatty-like deposit). Plaque can build up on certain points in an artery causing narrowing and blockages. Blockages can reduce or stop the blood flow to all or some parts of an organ supplied by that particular artery. And you can only imagine what happens if that organ is your heart or your brain!
So what foods should you limit to prevent this? The simple answer is foods high in saturated fats and trans fats. Saturated fats cause the liver to clear less LDL cholesterol from the blood and trans fats actually increase LDL levels and decrease HDL levels. Some foods high in saturated fatty acids are meat, cream, coconut oil, lard, chocolate and butter and some foods high in trans fatty acids are fried foods, commercially baked foods (such as cakes, biscuits and doughnuts), and many snack foods (such as chips and crackers). It is also really important to eat some foods rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids as they help to raise HDL levels and therefore clear more LDL cholesterol. Some foods include avocados, nuts, vegetables oils, seeds, and fatty fishes.