Cholesterol is a fatty waxy type structure that is produced naturally by our body. It is a essential for the creation of healthy cells and hormones and for Vitamin D absorption. Cholesterol is converted into bile acids for healthy digestion. It also supports nerve cell function and the repair of damaged arteries. So it’s pretty important stuff.
High levels of LDL cholesterol have been associated with greater heart disease risk, with cholesterol plaque formation associated with heart attack and stroke.
The idea that cholesterol is associated with heart disease came as a result of the work by Ancel Keys known as the 'lipid hypothesis' which linked raised blood cholesterol levels to the occurrence of heart disease. However our body’s relationship with cholesterol is more complex than this early hypothesis and we now know that the ‘health’, particle size, type and density of the different types of cholesterol is more important than just the amount.
There is a common misconception that eating high cholesterol foods or high fat foods raises cholesterol in the body. However a 2008 study by Ravnskov (and many more following) found that when the body detects cholesterol in the blood from food sources the liver produces less cholesterol to keep it in balance.
For those with high cholesterol there are many reasons why your cholesterol is out of balance, some of which are diet and nutrition related and others are as a result of genetics or lifestyle factors.
Reducing fat in your diet alone will not regulate your cholesterol. However if you are adding additional vegetable and fruit to your new dietary plan you may see improvements due to the added dietary fibre.
Reasons why a low fat diet alone will not reduce cholesterol
1.You’re not reducing inflammation
Inflammation in the body has been shown to increase cholesterol. When a manufactured product reduces one ingredient such as lowering fat, it typically increases others to compensate such as sugar or salt.
Sugar is pro-inflammatory in the body and inflammation in turn increases cholesterol. This doesn't just apply to ready meals, when the fat is taken out of dairy products for example, more naturally occurring sugars are released.
When removing the fat, some of the protein content is also removed which means these sugars are released quickly causing a blood sugar surge and crash.
2. You're missing key nutrients
Now that you're on a low fat diet, does this mean you are avoiding certain foods or food groups such as avocados, nuts and seeds? If so you could be missing out on essential nutrients such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E and B Vitamins.
If your diet was previously (or still is) low in vegetables and fruit or you have an issue with absorbing nutrients from your diet, you may be low in vitamins or minerals or have a deficiency. Vitamin D, Folate (Folic Acid/B 9) and B12 are the most common nutrient deficiencies in Ireland.
3. You’re not getting enough rest
If you’re constantly on the go during the day or experience a feeling of being tired but wired at night you could be increasing your cholesterol levels. Rest and sleep are important parts of a cholesterol lowering lifestyle.
Pushing too hard on a regular basis such as working long hours, having little or no down time or not engaging in hobbies or pastimes that bring joy to your live can negatively impact your heart health and leave you in a state of hyperalertness. This hyperalertness can increase sleep deprivation and stress levels.
4. Your not eating enough (good) fats
Fat is essential to the body. Fat is a source of essential fatty acids, which the body cannot make itself. Fat helps the body absorb vitamin A, vitamin D and vitamin E. These vitamins are fat-soluble, which means they can only be absorbed with the help of fats.
There are some fats such as Omega 3 and Oleic Acid that are considered beneficial to heart and overall health.
Research that Omega 3 fatty acids reduce triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood. They reduce the risk of developing an irregular heart beat (arrhythmias). They slow the buildup of plaque in your arteries. There are two types of omega 3 fatty acids ALA and EPA/DHA. ALA is the type found in nuts and seeds. EPA/DHA is a type of Omega 3 found in fatty fish such as salmon and algae.
5. Your liver is working too hard
Your liver performs over 500 functions in the body. It helps to break down food, medication, and toxins. Your liver can produce all the cholesterol your body needs, it also helps to break down cholesterol and eliminate it from the body.
For some people with high cholesterol, there may be a genetic issue which means that your liver does not efficiently breakdown cholesterol or may create too much LDL cholesterol and not enough HDL cholesterol.
Alcohol, smoking, dehydration, nutrient deficiencies, toxin exposure and medications can also impair the liver's ability to carry out all the work this busy organ performs for us each day.