The Skinny on Cholesterol
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by Dr. Thomas
There is always a fair amount of controversy
surrounding cholesterol. It's in the news, in our diets,
and in our bodies. Let's start with some background.
Cholesterol is a molecule that is in the "sterol" family.
This family of chemicals are the building blocks for
important body compounds, including the sex hormones
(testosterone and estrogen), stress hormones (cortisol
cortisone), bile acids that are used in digestion, vitamin
D, and other vital component of your cells' membranes.
Your liver makes as much cholesterol as your body requires,
and estimates how much to make based on your dietary
of saturated fats (among other cues). As you can see,
cholesterol is truly a vital need for normal body function
However, problems arise when the liver makes too much
cholesterol. Cholesterol is also one of the components
athersclerosis. These are the plaques and deposits that
develop in the arteries throughout the body and can
the arteries that feed the heart, brain, and limbs.
plaques become too large or thick, they lead to chest
("angina") and heart attacks, stroke, and poor
circulation. In the United States, about 8 out of 10
people die from diseases related to athersclerosis!
other factors that influence your risk for athersclerosis,
so don't think cholesterol is the only culprit. Smoking
a huge risk, but that is for another time.
So Doc, now we know it's bad, what can we do about it?
do we lower our blood cholesterol level? One way to
influence your cholesterol level is by limiting the
of saturated fat you eat. Saturated fats, put simply,
those that are solid at room temperature. Examples include
butter or margarine, lard, and many animal fats. Contrast
these with unsaturated fats which are liquid at room
temperature (olive oil, canola oil, and most plant fats).
First and foremost, no matter what "diet" you eat, you
should strive to keep the saturated fats to a minimum.
many saturated fats will cause your blood cholesterol
rise, putting you at greater risk for athersclerosis.
But what about the cholesterol in my food? Interestingly
enough, you probably don't absorb a lot of the cholesterol
you eat. Your body is very efficient at absorbing the
in your diet. It does this by using the bile acids made
the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Remember, these
bile acids are made of cholesterol. The fats you eat
combine with the bile acids in the small intestine and
absorbed into the body. Any excess bile acids that are
still in the small intestine after the fats are absorbed
are recycled and absorbed as well. Since the bile acids
are made of cholesterol (and are chemically very similar
cholesterol), the cholesterol that you have eaten in
your diet has to compete with the bile acids in order
for it to be absorbed as well. As it turns out, very
little, if any, of the cholesterol you eat actually
it into your system. However, notice that of the fats
(saturated or unsaturated) are very efficiently absorbed
into your system to be used as fuel or stored for a
So what's the "skinny"? It is the saturated fats in
diet that are most important to minimized, not the dietary
cholesterol. Often cholesterol and saturated fats are
found together in foods, but not always. For instance,
lobster is very high in cholesterol and protein, but
high in saturated fats. Eating lobster is really quite
healthy and "heart smart", at least until you dip it
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