Healthy and Unhealthy Cholesterol

We have heard that it is dangerous to have high cholesterol levels.  But did you know that abnormal cholesterol levels can mean having high LDL cholesterol or low HDL cholesterol?  Both are risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

What is cholesterol, and why is the LDL type so dangerous?

Cholesterol is a lipid, a waxy substance produced by the liver.  It’s found in certain foods, is needed to make vitamin D and certain hormones, helps build cell walls, and it creates bile salts that help digest fat.   Because the liver produces about 1,000 milligrams of cholesterol a day, we natually have sufficient amounts of cholesterol.  If we never ate another hamburger, we’d be fine, cholesterol-wise. But it’s difficult to avoid cholesterol; so many great foods contain it.  Eggs, meats, ice cream, and milk, for example, are loaded with cholesterol.

Cholesterol comes only from two sources:  from our own bodies, or from foods from animal sources.  This means that you can quite easily lower your cholesterol intake by adopting a mostly vegan diet.  Whoops, did I say easily?

But it is true.  As soon as an individual starts to use egg-substitute, veggieburgers, and “ice cream” made from almond milk or rice milk, or even just increases his/her ratio of cholesterol-free foods (vegetables, fruits, and grains) to high-cholesterol (animal-based) foods, the “bad” cholesterol levels usually drop.

Most of us consume about 150 to 250 milligrams of cholesterol daily, on top of producing 1,000 milligrams per day.

As we mentioned, not all cholesterol is bad.  LDL (low density lipoprotein) is the “bad” cholesterol.  HDL (high density lipoprotein) is the “good” cholesterol.  HDL cholesterol actually removes cholesterol from the blood vessels and carries it to the liver, where it is processed and sent out of our bodies.  –Pretty amazing.

Although an unhealthy diet may cause high “bad” cholesterol, sometimes high cholesterol runs in families and has nothing to do with what an individual eats. Adopting a low-cholesterol diet can usually help improve cholesterol levels, but sometimes doctors prescribe medications instead.

So, how much “bad” cholesterol should you limit yourself to intaking, per day?  It depends on how much cholesterol your body naturally produces.  It’s okay to eat no cholesterol at all.  But the upper limit suggested by WebMD is to take in less than 7% of your calories from saturated fat, and less than 200 mg of cholesterol, daily.

How to lower your bad cholesterol and raise your good cholesterol levels:

Here are some facts and tips to help you to bring about a lower-your-bad-cholesterol diet.

  • Flavor your vegetables with fresh herbs and a splash of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar.  Avoid cheese, cream or butter based sauces.
  • Unsaturated fats don’t raise cholesterol levels (So use grain-or veggie-based oils or fish oils; these remain liquid at room temperature, unlike bacon fat, lard or butter.)
  • Fiber lowers cholesterol.  Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
  • Under the U.S. government’s food guidelines, adults need 7-13 cups of produce daily to get protection against obesity and related diseases. Buy more veggies!
  • Exercise tends to tends to increase HDL (good cholesterol) levels.
  • Stay away from hydrogenated vegetable oils. Replace saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats. Use liquid vegetable oil or trans fat-free margarine.
  • Trim off all fat before cooking and drain fat from the pan after browning meats– if you eat meats at all.
  • Instead of frying–  boil, broil, roast, poach, steam, and sauteé.
  • Try different sources of protein— nuts, peas, beans, tofu.
  • Try using fewer egg yolks in recipes.
  • Pass by the commercially baked treats which are usually made with hydrogenated oils.
  • For snacks, plan ahead:  bring veggies, fruits, berries, whole grain crackers, unbuttered popcorn or pretzels, gelatin, or low fat yogurt.
  • Seek out meatless recipes your family actually enjoys.  You might like fresh, homemade salsa with low fat corn chips; veggie chili; lentil loaf; garlic-hummus burgers; or barley and tomato soup.
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