THE FACTS AND THE MYTHS
By now, most people know that high levels of blood cholesterol can lead to blocked arteries. If an artery that supplies blood to your heart becomes blocked, a heart attack may occur. If an artery that supplies blood to your brain becomes blocked, a stroke could occur. Still, confusion abounds over the role of diet in a affecting cholesterol.
Although often portrayed as a dietary evil, cholesterol is essential to life. The body needs it to make sex hormones, bile, vitamin D, cell membranes, and nerve sheaths. These and other functions fall to serum cholesterol, a waxy, fatlike compound, termed a “lipid”, that circulates in the blood-stream. The liver manufactures about a gram each day, which is all the body requires.
Dietary cholesterol is found only is animal products. The body does not need this cholesterol, but anyone other than strict vegetarian who excludes all animals products will consume varying amounts of it. Many factors-exercise, genetics, gender, and other components of the diet- influence how the human body processes dietary cholesterol; some people can consume large amounts but have normal blood levels, while others eat very little but have high blood cholesterol.
GOOD VERSUS BAD CHOLESTEROL
To travel through the bloodstream, cholesterol molecules attach themselves to lipid-carrying proteins, or lipoproteins. Two types of lipoproteins are the major transporters of cholesterol: low-density lipoproteins(LDLs) carry two-thirds of it; most of the remainder is attached to high-density lipoproteins (HDLs). LDLs tend to deposit cholesterol in the artery walls, leading to atherosclerosis and an increased risk of heart disease. In contrast, HDLs collect cholesterol from the artery walls and other tissues and take it to the liver to be metabolized and eliminated from the body. This is why LDLs are often called the “bad” cholesterol and HDLs the “good”.
Tobacco should be avoided. Firsthand and secondhand smoke both cause a drop in health-promoting antioxidants such as vitamin C. Tobacco smoke also incourages the immune system to increase LDLs.
STRICTER DIETS YIELD EVEN BETTER RESULTS
TRY A VEGETARIAN DIET
The vegetarian low-fat (less than 10 percent of calories) program developed by Dr. Dean Ornish can lower LDL cholesterol substantially. His program also calls for exercise and meditation.
BE SURE TO INCLUDE FOODS THAT ACTUALLY LOWER CHOLESTEROL
It isn’t just what you don’t eat that matters; consuming foods that have a cholesterol-lowering effect also helps. Flavonoid-rich foods, including citrus fruits and onions, are known to promote healthy cholesterol levels.
EAT FISH RICH IN OMEGA-3s. Two or three servings a week of salmon, sardines, and other cold-water fish are linked with a reduced risk of heart attacks and strokes. Initially, it was thought that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish reduced cardio-vascular risk by lowering blood cholesterol levels; however, recent studies suggest that their benefit comes from interfering with blood clotting and from possible changes in the way the liver metabolizes other lipids.
EAT LOTS OF SOY PRODUCTS
A large body of evidence has shown that adding soy protein to a low-fat diet helps to lower cholesterol levels. Soy protein is found in soybeans and products made from these beans, including tofu and soy beverages.
Increased exercise, weight loss, and stress reduction can all lower cholesterol or improve the LDL/HDL ratio. Woman are protected from developing coronary artery disease during their reproductive years by the estrogen their body produces; but according to the most recent research, estrogen supplements taken after menopause do not offer similar protection.
Moderate alcohol intake lowers the risk of heart attack. This may be due to alcohol’s ability to raise HDL, its tendency to reduce the stickiness of platelets, or the presence of antioxidants, such as resveratrol in red wine. If dietary and other lifestyle changes fail to reduce blood cholesterol, drugs may be prescribed.