Contrary to what you might think, having some cholesterol is actually quite good for our bodies. It’s only when there is a higher level of “bad” cholesterol as opposed to the “good” that our bodies can become threatened by heart disease. The “bad” cholesterol is called LDL, and the “good” is HDL. It is the liver in our bodies that make the good cholesterol that creates bile salts, hormones, and vitamin D. The trouble is cholesterol builds up on the artery walls when the level in the blood is too high, especially if it is LDL. LDL forms plaques on the artery walls eventually narrowing them over time which then blocks blood flow.
It is saturated fats and trans fatty acids in the foods we eat that cause a rise in the bad LDL. But monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats creates the good HDL which helps lower the LDL levels by taking the excess bad cholesterol away to the liver where it is excreted. The good HDL can also help remove the bad LDL from artery walls. Thus high levels of HDL in the blood is actually a good thing as the more you have the greater the risk of heart disease is reduced.
As most people know, bad cholesterol comes from eating things like fatty cuts of meat, butter, lard, cream, hard cheese, cakes and biscuits, foods containing coconut or palm oil. In fact, to be blunt, anything that has been “processed” rather than being “natural” is generally going to contain some elements of saturated fat or trans fatty acids...and therefore add to the bad cholesterol levels of LDL. Obviously, Red meats can also be “bad” if too much is taken on board regularly.
Good cholesterol comes from eating things like oily fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, sunflower, olive, corn, walnut and rapeseed oils and spreads, and vegetable oils. And of course, it is worth pointing out, fruit and vegetables have no cholesterol at all, and are also low in saturated fat. Hence, every good dietician and nutritionist will recommend you eat far more fruit and veggies to maintain general good health. In fact most governments these days (in the western world at least) make great efforts to encourage its citizens to eat more fruit and vegetables, for not only are cholesterol levels reduced, but blood pressure is too.
Reducing the total amount of fat we eat is also a good step in cutting back on LDL cholesterol. That can be achieved by adopting alternative cooking methods such as microwaving, steaming, poaching, boiling or grilling rather than roasting or frying. Also, eating more soluble fiber will assist in eliminating bad cholesterol. Good sources of soluble fiber include oats, beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, as well as fruit and vegetables.
There is also evidence that foods containing certain added ingredients such as plant sterols and stanols can reduce bad cholesterol too. Sterols and stanols can be found in specially developed spreads and yogurts, though these are mainly recommended to people with high cholesterol in their blood, and is not necessarily good for children or pregnant women.
Naturally, given companies propensity for creating drugs to battle our ills, pills and medications to counter high cholesterol levels experienced by people have been developed. But as with most drugs, taking them can come with unpleasant side effects, as well as high monetary cost.
That’s why world renowned nutritional scientist David Jenkins MD and his team of researchers undertook a study to find alternative ways to lower cholesterol through the use of specific foods. Entitled the ‘Portfolio Study,’ the findings of Dr. Jenkins have become a landmark in cholesterol research and management. The Portfolio Study took four groups of foods for which there is approval by the Food and Drug Administration for a reduced risk of heart disease health claim, and put them all into one diet to test the effects on cholesterol. The four food groups were almonds, soy foods, sticky fiber foods such as oats, barley, psyllium, okra and eggplant, and a plant sterol-enriched margarine. These foods were combined with other fruits and vegetables, and then studies were completed involving participants on the Portfolio diet, a good low-fat, low-cholesterol diet, or a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet with a statin drug (developed to reduce heart disease).
The tests had positive results on cholesterol in that the viscous fibers washed out the products of cholesterol metabolism (the bile acid in feces); the soy protein reduced cholesterol synthesis when compared to animal protein, and the almond was found to act like a combination of the others in that it has vegetable protein, a rich “good” fat, and some plant sterol.
All in all, participants on the Portfolio Study (also known as the “Garden of Eden” diet) experienced a 20% reduction in their total cholesterol and a 30% decrease in their bad LDL cholesterol levels – but that may have something to do with the fact that a whopping 100g of daily dietary fiber was ingested! However, what the study does prove beyond any doubt is that it is the food we eat that is the key to maintaining a healthy diet and, indeed, all we really need to prevent many of the illnesses mankind is afflicted with.
As Dr. Jenkins is keen to point out, it’s lifestyle that affects our minds and bodies, and consequently our health. The way he sees it, our modern computer-age western world is making eating and living healthily harder and harder given our work, and leisure activities. Going back to a “caveman” way of life is obviously not an option, but at the heart of those early days was a simpler life based on plant foods. The evolution of hominoids (apes and humans) in all likelihood depended on plant-based (vegetarian) diets which would have been very high in fiber, low in saturated fats, lacking in cholesterol, with carbohydrate in dilute form, rich in micronutrients and phytochemicals, and with very low energy density.
Man then left the jungle and colonized the savannah, started eating meat, and then starch as the agricultural revolution kicked in 10,000 years ago. With this advance came diabetes, first described by the Egyptians. The industrial revolution and industrialization of food production and distribution then fulfilled our needs for energy conservation and the abundance of food. These advances came without the simultaneous evolution of the human genome, thus rendering us obese in the modern age when we are less active and have more food than we need. In other words, we are still programmed to store energy effectively, and our blood sugar levels are maintained even in starvation which is leading to increased diabetes in our western population.
And we are also now prone to greater levels of cholesterol when once there was none at all in pre-Neolithic times. In Dr. Jenkins’ words the metabolic problems of 21st century man are now “overwhelming” – but much could be done to alleviate this condition with greater awareness and effort in appreciating the role of plant-based foods, along with increasing our physical activity. In many ways the evolution of man has brought about a devolution in the way we live and utilize the purity of Natures abundant wealth of healthy life-affirming ingredients. It’s still all there, right in front of us. We just need to embrace the simplicity Nature offers us, and in many ways return to a simpler way of living to combat the ailments that so afflict us today.
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