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Cholesterol: Friend, not Foe!

Maureen St. Germain has been a Native Barre Studios instructor for 5 years. In September 2019, she started a Functional Nutritional Therapy Practitioner course through the Nutritional Therapy Association. She is amazed and excited as to learn about the human body and how we can use food to help heal ourselves from chronic conditions as well as aid with healthy aging. Each month, she will pick a topic and provide insight so we all can work towards optimal health.

How many of you think cholesterol is bad? How many people think eating red meat, eggs, and cheese increases your cholesterol? My guess is more than half of you. Guess what, you are WRONG!

A brief history

In 1953, Ancel Keys, director of the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene at the University of Minnesota, first introduced the “diet-heart hypothesis” which stated that dietary fats, including cholesterol, caused heart disease. Therefore, if we avoid high-fat, high-cholesterol foods, we could avoid the risk of developing heart disease. Instead, we should eat processed carbohydrates and low-fat foods. Ancel Keys called this the “Mediterranean Diet.” To our detriment, Keys’ used data selectivity to prove this correlation, i.e., editing out data that did not support his hypothesis and highlighting data that did.

At the same in the United States, heart disease had become an epidemic and important public health issue. Our Government was looking for answers, so they accepted Ancel Keys information as gospel and we all fell in line. This was excellent for big food corporations because they could develop all new products that were low-fat, no-fat or low-cholesterol that were FILLED with chemicals and processed carbs, sugar and salt - all cheap ingredients with a high profit margin. No one of authority seemed to care or notice when heart disease rates continued to rise in the United States.

What you need to know

Cholesterol and saturated fats are needed in every single cell membrane in our body to provide structure, strength, and support. In other words, every cell membrane is made partly of cholesterol.

Our body produces cholesterol as needed. The more high quality, cholesterol rich foods we eat means the less our body has to work to produce cholesterol. So those with a low-cholesterol diet will have cholesterol in their body, forcing their body to work harder to produce it, because we need a certain amount to survive!

Why do we need it to survive? Think of cholesterol as a healing agent. It is actually sent to the site of damage when needed. For example, if we have damage to the lining of a blood vessel, our liver will send Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) to the wound to heal it. Once the blood vessel is healed, the cholesterol will travel back to the liver as High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL). So LDL has been nicknamed, “bad cholesterol” because it travels to the infected site and HDL nicknamed “good cholesterol” because it travels AWAY from the infected site after healing it giving us a COMPLETE misconception of cholesterol.

So remember, every cell membrane is made primarily of cholesterol which means that when cells need to repair and heal, they can’t do it without the presence of cholesterol.

So what does cause heart disease?

A poor diet filled with processed carbohydrates that avoids cholesterol rich foods. We have to remember that this doesn’t just mean eating sugar laden foods and beverages, it means ALL processed carbohydrates such as pasta and bread that are converted to glucose in our bodies. Our bodies can only store so much glucose in our liver and skeletal muscles. Whatever is left over is converted to fat for storage in our adipose tissue. As we continue to flood our bodies with glucose from poor dietary choices, we pump out insulin to try to absorb the glucose but we become less reactive to the presence of insulin in our blood, which is a condition known as insulin resistance and leads to further inflammation. Now the excess glucose will travel through your blood looking for a landing spot. The glucose molecules can attach themselves to protein molecules and become Advanced Glycosylated End products (AGEs). AGEs attach themselves to walls of blood vessels, damaging them and starting the process of atherosclerosis (a form of heart disease) or the building up of plaque on the walls of our blood vessels. As plaque continues to build, it will restrict the flow of blood throughout our body, forcing our heart to work harder to pump blood. As the pathway continues to be restricted by atherosclerotic plaque build up, the likelihood of stroke and heart attack greatly increase. If we do not have enough cholesterol to begin the healing process and clean up the plaque build up, we will continue to inflame.

So how does this all relate to our day to day lives and nutrition?

We can easily help to lower our chances of heart disease if we choose to eat a nutrient-dense, properly prepared diet. If you aren’t exactly sure what that means, think about what was eaten over 100 years ago. They didn’t have processed and refined carbohydrates, trans fats and hydrogenated oils. If the package has more than four ingredients and you can’t pronounce a few of them, put it back down on the shelf. This can seem like an insurmountable task but try just 1 thing to change in your diet. If you eat breakfast cereal, try to switch it out for a hard boiled egg from pasture raised chickens. Replace pasta with “zoodles” -zucchini noodles (even Safeway has them premade!) Replace your margarine with grass-fed butter.

We also need to manage our life stress. This can be handled in a few ways, through movement (HINT, HINT: Native Barre Studios classes) and community-take a class or join a club! We also want to limit external stressors such a chemicals from cleaning agents or even limiting use of NSAIDS that can hurt our microbiome that works so hard to protect us!

Remember, baby steps lead to big changes!

If you want to learn more about cholesterol and how to protect yourself from heart disease, I highly recommend, Put Your Heart in Your Mouth! by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. It is a short and fascinating read. She even has some wonderful nourishing recipes in the back for you to try and enjoy.

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