Aim for Health

Keeping Cholesterol at Bay

Estimates are that 97.2 million American and 8 million Canadian adults have "at risk" cholesterol levels, and 38.3 millions American and 3 million Canadian adults have "high risk" cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol - a word that strikes fear into the hearts of many. A cholesterol test comes back high and you break out in a cold sweat. Your doctor mentions it and you begin to shake. "Cholesterol-free" shouts out at you from many food labels, reminding you that it is a health faux pas to eat anything but "cholesterol-free."

And is it any wonder? High levels of blood cholesterol are linked to the No. 1 killer in North America: heart disease.

But cholesterol also is important to your health. Without cholesterol, steroid hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone could not be formed (imagine life without these!). Cholesterol is part of the digestive process, and it is an important part of the cell-indeed, cholesterol is used in building cell membranes and cell walls. Cholesterol is found naturally in the brain, nerves, liver, blood, and bile.

Recommended Cholesterol Levels

Lipid Type Desireable Borderline Risk High Risk
Total cholesterol Less than 200 200 - 239 240 +
LDL cholesterol Less than 130 130 - 159 160 +
HDL cholesterol 45 + 35 - 45 Less than 35
Total/HDL ratio 3.5 + 3 - 4.5 4.5 +

So what gives?

As in so much of life, it is excess that causes problems. We all have and need cholesterol; what we don't need is too much cholesterol.

This is because the more cholesterol you have in your blood, the more likely it is that the fatty streaks along the inner walls of the arteries will harden, turn to plaque, and build up, resulting in atherosclerosis, heart attacks, strokes, and death.

What to Do

Health practitioners all agree that cholesterol levels should be checked and should be kept at certain levels. How do you do this?

It is important to remember that our bodies manufacture most of our cholesterol-80 percent-and that we get a mere 20 percent of our cholesterol from our diets. This means we must consider both cholesterol and other food components that influence cholesterol in our diet.

  1. Eat foods low in cholesterol. This means avoiding meat in general, and especially kidney and liver. Eggs, sardines, shrimp, and sponge cake are also high in cholesterol.

  2. Avoid non-cholesterol foods that raise cholesterol levels. According to James F. Balch, M.D., in Prescription for Nutritional Healing, saturated fats have been shown to raise cholesterol levels higher than dietary cholesterol does. Sugar, trans-fatty acids (margarine), coffee, and alcohol also have been shown to raise cholesterol levels. The obvious thing to do is limit your consumption of these substances.

  3. Eat more fiber. Foods high in soluble fiber lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber is found in fruits, some beans, oats, barley, and psyllium.

  4. Eat foods that combat cholesterol. There are "everyday" foods that can help lower cholesterol levels. These include garlic, apples, bananas, carrots, cold- water fish, dried beans, grapefruit, and olive oil. Drinking fresh juice also helps, especially carrot and beet juices.

  5. Exercise and lose weight. Regular exercise can raise levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and lower levels of LDL cholesterol. Losing weight does the same, and, of course, exercise is one way to lose weight.

  6. Keep stress at bay. Stress affects cholesterol levels negatively.

  7. Supplement. A number of supplements help with cholesterol and heart disease risk. Because free radicals play a role in atherosclerosis, antioxidants, which combat free radicals, are worth taking. Vitamin E is an especially powerful antioxidant, as are the catechins found in green tea. Studies have shown that green tea catechins may cut cholesterol levels.

    A new substance that may help maintain healthy cholesterol levels is tocotrienols. Tocotrienols are a form of vitamin E, and many studies indicate that their antioxidant properties may be responsible for their positive effect on cholesterol levels.

A Few High-Cholesterol Foods

Food Amount Cholesterol
Liver, beef 3 oz 372
Kidney, beef 3 oz 315
Eggs(whole or yolk only) 1 large 252
Sponge Cake 1/12 of 10 in cake 162
Shrimp, canned 3 oz 128
Frankfurter 2 (4 oz) 112
Lemon Meringue Pie 1/8 of 9 in pie 98
Crab, canned 3 oz 85
Veal, lean 3 oz 84
Beef 3 oz 77
Chicken, dark 3 oz 77
Pork, lean 3 oz 75
Butter 1 tbl. 35

Homocysteine: Is it, and not cholesterol, the bad guy?

One drawback to the "cholesterol as king" theory of cardiovascular disease (CVD) is that many people with no risk factors suffer from heart problems. Indeed, an article in the June 26, 1996, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association notes that the traditional CVD risk factors (age, genetics, gender, smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol, sedentary life, diabetes, weight, stress) only explain about 50 percent of all CVD. The amino acid homocysteine may be the reason.

Back in 1968, Kilmer McCully, a pathologist, came across evidence that indicated that high levels of homocysteine might be linked to heart disease. This went against the "cholesterol risk factor" tidal wave, and McCully was ignored; he was actually forced out of his position due to this radical theory.

Today, McCully is being vindicated. Recent tests have linked high homocysteine levels with a risk of heart attack more than three time greater than normal-putting homocysteine in the same risk-factor category as smoking and high cholesterol levels.

Homocysteine is formed when the body breaks down protein, especially the protein found in meat. Meat protein contains the essential amino acid methionine, and when methionine is digested, it produces homocysteine. According to McCully's theory, if homocysteine levels increase, the result is the buildup of plaque, which, of course, may lead to atherosclerosis, heart attacks, strokes, and death.

Homocysteine builds up if we eat too much meat or do not get sufficient amounts of vitamins B6 and B12 and folic acid. These three vitamins are integral in the process of recycling and excreting homocysteine. If we do not have sufficient amounts of these vitamins, homocysteine levels rise.

The article "Keeping Cholesterol at Bay" is reproduced with the permission of AIM International
© 1998 - 99 by AIM International.

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