Cholesterol is present in every single cell of our body. It goes by the chemical formula C27H46O – essentially a carbon-based molecule. Cholesterol is a vital component of our body to maintain our cellular structure as well as in the synthesis of hormones – testosterone and estrogen. And a majority of the cholesterol in our body is synthesized internally compared to what we consume from exogenous sources.
Let us try to address a few misconceptions we have about cholesterol and out diet choices -
1) How do I increase the good cholesterol (HDL) and reduce my bad cholesterol (LDL) levels?
First up – there is only one type of cholesterol. HDL & LDL as the name implies are lipoproteins – high & low density respectively. They derive their name from the fact that their structure contains lipids and proteins. Lipoproteins exist to transport fats & cholesterol in our blood stream – fats and water ( a primary component of blood) do not mix so you need a carrier. In addition to LDL & HDL, there are IDL (Intermediate density lipoprotein), VLDL (Very LDL) – all these differ in terms of how much of their composition is lipid vs protein. LDL transports cholesterol from the liver to the cells for storage while HDL takes cholesterol from the cells and back to the liver for body functional requirements. So they have their own vital part to play and the classification as good and bad is really an oversimplification or misinterpretation of facts.
2) But then what about LDL causing heart attacks?
LDL has been long correlated with risk of heart diseases while HDL with protection but these are just correlations. It is not simply the concentration of LDL (measured in standard lab tests) but more advanced parameters – like LDL particle size, ratios of other lipid biomarkers that truly paint a picture. Simply having high LDL does not necessarily lead to heart attacks but rather LDL correlates with risk of heart disease as well as the other parameters. It is at worst, a symptom of the real problem.
3) What are triglycerides and their relation with cholesterol?
Triglycerides and cholesterol are both lipids. They circulate in our blood stream, transported by lipoprotein as discussed above. The major difference being triglycerides are burned to create energy while cholesterol is used for building cells and hormones. While the body can create cholesterol on its own, it relies on our food consumption to produce triglycerides. Like cholesterol, high triglyceride levels are at best a warning sign, a symptom of what is in store. Individuals with high triglycerides usually have other health issues like obesity, diabetes etc which lead to coronary heart diseases.
4) So can I control cholesterol levels by avoiding eggs, ghee, meat etc?
Dietary cholesterol has little said over the blood cholesterol levels. Blood cholesterol levels are influenced by the type of fats in our diet. Different types of fats influence different types of cholesterol -
- Saturated raises both HDL and LDL
- Monounsaturated raises HDL
- Polyunsaturated lowers both HDL and LDL
So we are better off focussing on the quality of fats we consume rather than on cholesterol content of foods. And as always exercise helps keep things in check.