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Understanding cholesterol

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C. A. V. Nogueira, M.D. ▼ | August 26, 2009
Cholesterol is fat-like substance, in appearance similar to wax, and it can be found in every cell in your body. It is important because your body uses it to build healthy cells and some vital hormones.
CholesterolCholesterol is fat-like substance, in appearance similar to wax, and it can be found in every cell in your body. It is important because your body uses it to build healthy cells and some vital hormones.

Without cholesterol our body wouldn't be able to work properly, but too much of it causes great problems, from health problems to death. So, the goal is not to reduced the amount of cholesterol to the minimum but to the level at which it is a friend, not the enemy. Since cholesterol is very important substance it is mainly produced in our bodies: our liver produces 75% of the amount your body needs and 25% percent comes from the food.

There are two main types of cholesterol: LDL and HDL. LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein, but you can call it "lousy, deadly lipoprotein". It is "bad" because when there is too much of it in your blood it will slowly start to build up on the walls of the arteries. Imagine the streets with no police on which you leave one car every day.

If nobody removes your cars it won't be long before the street will be closed. That's exactly what happens with LDL: if you don't remove it, your blood vessels will be closed, blood will not flow and your organs will get no oxygen and need food. And your organs like those things very much and can't live without them. HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein, but you can call it "happy day lipoprotein". It is "good" because it helps remove "bad" cholesterol from arteries and helps blood vessels to stay happily open for blood flow.

Now we must add one more fact: many people inherit genes from their parents that cause them to make too much LDL cholesterol. Studies show that build-up of fatty plaque in arteries starts in childhood and progresses into adulthood. That's why children from parents with high cholesterol, or parents or grandparents with heart disease at 55 years or younger, should have their cholesterol levels tested.

You can have high amounts of cholesterol with no visible problems - the only way to know your cholesterol levels is by having them checked. How much is too much? If you have more than 160 mg/dL then you have an increased risk of atherosclerosis in arteries. And that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. The blood test will reveal cholesterol levels and you can do something about before the heart attack.

Before all else - check your lifestyle habits. Do you smoke? Do you eat too much saturated fat? Are you physically inactive? If the answer on those questions is "yes" then you must change your lifestyle. Before any medication, your doctors will address your diet, exercise and smoking. After that, if healthy eating, at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week and quitting smoking don't lower your cholesterol, then he may prescribe medication. Remember that even if you are taking medication it is very important to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Which food to eat? All foods containing animal fat contain cholesterol to some extent. Major sources of cholesterol are cheese, egg yolks, beef, pork, poultry, shrimp, and also in human breast milk. In the other hand, cholesterol is not present in plants unless it was added during the food's preparation. So plants are good but even better, some plant products such as flax seeds and peanuts contain healthy compounds called phytosterols which helps to lower cholesterol levels.

Total fat intake, especially saturated fat, plays a bigger role in blood cholesterol than intake of cholesterol itself. Saturated fat is present in full fat milk products, animal fats, and several types of oil and chocolate. Trans fats may be derived from the partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fats and they are not essential for life. Trans fats should be consumed extremely rarely or not at all as they are more harmful than naturally occurring oils. Trans fat can be found in fast food, snack foods, fried food and baked goods.