Foodies and health pracitioners across America rejoiced last week, when the U.S. Department of Health announced its new cholesterol guidelines.
In case you didn’t hear, the latest Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (that’s a mouthful, right?) contains a single bullet point that states: “Cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”
This report is what the USDA uses to put together things like My Plate and its predecessor, the Food Pyramid. While not everyone agrees on its recommendations (the necessity of dairy is still widely debated, and we can’t seem to shake this low-fat obsession), these guidelines dictate school lunches, hospital food, and the overarching dietary choices of millions of Americans.
Cholesterol: A thirty-second primer
Cholesterol is a lipid – a waxy, fat-like substance that doesn’t dissolve in water. Because of this, it’s unable to travel through the bloodstream alone – it needs to hitch a ride on a protein molecule. These combos are calls lipoproteins.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) have more protein than cholesterol. They move quickly through the bloodstream, arriving at the liver lickety-split, to get converted into bile. These are known as “good” cholesterol.
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) have more cholesterol than protein, and chug through the bloodstream very slowly, bumping off arteries, running into cell walls and leaving bits all over the place. They have a tendency to get stuck, and when that happens, plaque can build up around the area. This is why it’s known as “bad” cholesterol.
The good news: HDLs are actually programmed to grab onto LDLs and transport them away from trouble spots.
The bad news: Our cholesterol levels can get out of whack, with more LDLs lurching around than HDLs to pick them up. That’s why you want your “bad” cholesterol to be low, and your “good” cholesterol to be high.
Your body makes cholesterol whether you eat it or not. Genetics play a role, as do hormonal imbalances. So, you could cut all cholesterol out of your diet for years, and still have high numbers.
The numbers are ALWAYS changing, so I hesitate to even post them here, but as of today the recommended cholesterol levels are:
Optimal LDL = 100 or lower. Anything over 160 is considered high.
Optimal HDL = around 60. 40 or lower is considered low.
Optimal total cholesterol = 200. Approaching 240, or higher, is considered high.
New research has identified two different types of LDL: large, fluffy molecules, which are believed to be benign (they just kind of float around), and small, dense molecules, which are the bad ones – the ones that get stuck.
You can now have an additional blood test to identify particle density. This is thought to be a much more accurate indicator of risk for heart disease.
It’s the Sugar, Stupid
For years, the USDA, doctors, and registered dieticians believed that saturated fat caused an increase in cholesterol, and that to keep our levels low we should avoid fat.
So we did – and increased our consumption of carbohydrates and sugar. And it just so happens, Americans are now fatter and sicker than we’ve ever been before.
What researchers have discovered is that saturated fat does contribute to an increase in the large, fluffy LDL molecules – and therefore, to your total cholesterol levels. But this doesn’t seem to make a difference when it comes to heart disease.
There is one dietary factor that influences cholesterol in a decidedly negative way: SUGAR. Excess carbohydrate and sugar consumption contribute to an increase in the small, dense LDL molecules.
So the dietary answer to lowering cholesterol levels? Cut down on sugar. Reduce consumption of soda, juice and alcohol. Eliminate refined sugar from your diet, and increase your consumption of fresh vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats.
Smoking raises cholesterol levels too, so add that to your list of reasons to quit.
The Bottom Line
Eggs are officially back on the menu, yolks and all. Lobster and shrimp, two foods with notoriously high levels of dietary cholesterol, are now deemed safe to eat, even if your blood levels are high. Yay!
To lower your cholesterol naturally, eat a diet rich in vegetables, abundant in healthy fats, and full of fiber. Eliminate high fructose corn syrup and other forms of sugar.
It all boils down to what I’ve been saying all along: EAT REAL FOOD. There is no situation in which a processed food is healthier for you than a food that comes from nature. Plus, it’s so much easier to understand food that doesn’t have labels.