Cholesterol is made naturally by the body, but we can also get it from foods. How is that possible? About 75% of the cholesterol we find in our bloodstream comes from our liver. This is a good thing.
You may wonder how it’s possible that cholesterol can be good for us at all! Without getting too scientific, cholesterol actually acts as a transporter in the body. You remember that Jason Statham movie “The Transporter“? The film’s title makes it painfully obvious, but Statham’s character was hired to transport precious cargo from one mobster to another. Imagine cholesterol is your personal Transporter. The precious cargo in this case: fat. We need cholesterol to transport fat around the body and in some cases, out of the body.
Using the Statham Transporter analogy, cholesterol grabs onto fat, sticks it in its trunk and moves it along the highway (our bloodstream). This is why the liver has to make cholesterol–to support this very natural function.
Too Much Cholesterol
While cholesterol does have a specific and very useful function in the body, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. I said that about 75% of the cholesterol floating around in the bloodstream was made by the liver. The other 25% comes from the diet. Where in the diet, specifically, though?
Think of it this way: any time you eat something that had a liver (cows, pigs, chickens and their eggs, fish, lizards–basically other animals), you’re going to get some cholesterol. That’s because their livers make it, too! But the question is: does eating cholesterol actually raise our blood cholesterol levels?
The American Heart Association used to think so, but recently, they changed their mind. The recommendation used to go something like this: don’t consume any more than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol each day. But now it seems that the cholesterol you get from food may not actually raise blood cholesterol levels as much as we once thought. Other factors seem to be more important.
Types of Cholesterol
What complicates things a bit is the fact that we have different types of cholesterol in our bloodstream. Some types of cholesterol are more harmful than others.
The ones we know are most harmful are the ones labeled LDL or VLDL. An easy way to remember this is to think of the “L” in LDL referring to “lousy” or “lethal” cholesterol. You actually don’t get this lousy or lethal cholesterol from your diet; instead, our body makes LDL when we eat certain types of fat. Going back to the Transporter analogy, cholesterol’s role in the body is to act like Jason Statham and transport fat. What happens is this: when you eat certain types of fat, the liver says, “Hey, we need more Jason Statham’s to transport this fat around!” So it makes more transporters. Unfortunately, it makes more lousy or lethal transporters, LDL cholesterol, to do the job.
What types of fat cause the liver to make more of this lethal transporter? Saturated fat and trans fat, specifically.
Saturated fat is commonly found in animal products–particularly red meat. Trans fat is found in many processed or boxed foods like cakes, cookies, and crackers.
What does the happy, healthy HDL do? All health professionals will tell you that this is something you want more of in the body. This is because it actually helps our bodies get rid of too much LDL. HDL is also a transporter, but of the lousy/lethal LDL. HDL sends the LDL out of the body.
Lowering Cholesterol Naturally
What can you do from a diet perspective to lower your LDL cholesterol? Luckily, there are ways. Here are 5 tips:
- Be sure you’re eating at least 25 g of dietary fiber each day. Without even trying to track this, you can be sure you’re getting enough fiber by eating a diet that includes oats, whole grains, berries, beans, and nuts. Fiber is like HDL’s sidekick–it also helps the body get rid of LDL cholesterol.
- Eat more omega-3 fats. These can be found in marine fish like salmon, mackerel, halibut, and trout. These types of fats lower LDL cholesterol in the blood. If you’re not a fan of these, consider purchasing a high quality supplement and checking with your doctor to be sure it’s ok to take given your health history.
- Exercise. High intensity activity seems to help increase happy/healthy HDL levels in the blood, which will then remove LDL from the bloodstream. Aim for exercising at a high intensity for at least 30 min, 3 days per week. Doing this up to 5 days/week is even better.
- Watch those added sugars. Too many of these added or simple sugars in the diet tells the liver to make more LDL transporters in the blood. If you’re a fan of regular sodas, candy, and desserts, think about consuming just a little less each day. Those little changes will start to add up over time.
- If you’re carrying excess body weight, losing just 5 lbs. can help lower LDL cholesterol levels.
The great news is that even if your cholesterol numbers don’t look great right now, all hope is not lost. There is still plenty of time to keep those cholesterol levels in check!