What Is Cholesterol?There are three different types of cholesterol. HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is known as “good” cholesterol. HDL carries cholesterol throughout your body to your liver, which then “recycles” it in bile form into the digestive tract. About 50 percent of this is absorbed back into the body via the small intestine. LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, is what’s known as “bad” cholesterol. High levels of LDL has been linked to the buildup of plaque in arteries as well as other health issues.
VLDL, or very low-density lipoprotein, is also considered a “bad” cholesterol, but while LDL carries cholesterol, VLDL carries triglycerides. Triglycerides are the most common type of fat found in the human body. When you eat too many calories for your body, VLDL cholesterol particles carry triglycerides to your tissues, where it is stored in body fat. Your body then releases triglycerides when energy is needed.
Where Does ‘Bad’ Cholesterol Come From?According to Dr. Michael Greger, founder of NutritionFacts.org, LDL cholesterol is found in trans fats, which is found in processed foods and naturally in meat and dairy. The Mayo Clinic notes that this trans fats are “double trouble” for heart health due to the fact that it raises LDL levels while lowering “good” HDL levels. Trans fat is added to processed foods through an industrial process where hydrogen is added to vegetable oil, which allows the oil to be solid at room temperature. On ingredients labels, it’s called “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” and it is used to give many packaged foods a longer shelf life. It is also used for deep-frying by some restaurants because partially hydrogenated oil does not need to be changed as often. Foods that typically contain trans fats include commercial baked goods, snacks like chips and crackers, refrigerated dough such as cinnamon rolls and pizza crusts, fried foods, and margarine. Cheese, butter, and processed meat like bacon, breakfast sausages, ham, and hot dogs are also high in “bad” cholesterol.
What Is the Ideal Cholesterol Ratio?Measuring your cholesterol levels is considered an effective way of determining your risk of heart disease and stroke. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), all adults over the age of 20 should have their cholesterol checked every four to six years. When it comes to measuring your cholesterol, there are two things to keeIsp in mind. The first is your total cholesterol level, which is measured by a health professional via a blood test. This number is calculated from your HDL, LDL, and 20 percent of your triglycerides. Typically, you want this number to be below 200. However, many health professionals stand by measuring your cholesterol ratio. According to the AHA, this is obtained by dividing the HDL cholesterol level into your total cholesterol.“For example, if a person has a total cholesterol of 200 and an HDL cholesterol level of 50, the ratio would be 4:1,” the organization writes. The ideal level of cholesterol varies from person to person and can also be determined by genetics. The Framingham Heart Study says that a cholesterol ratio of five indicates an average heart attack risk for men and the risk doubles if the ratio reaches 9.6. Women, meanwhile, are more likely to have higher levels of good cholesterol. A ratio of 4.4 is average heart attack risk for women and it doubles if that number reaches seven.
What Are the Health Risks of High Cholesterol?High cholesterol comes with a number of health risks. If you have too much in your blood, cholesterol can combine with other substances such as calcium and fat to form plaque, which sticks to the walls of your arteries. This can lead to a condition known as atherosclerosis, a disease marked by the hardening or narrowing of arteries. If left untreated, atherosclerosis can lead to coronary artery disease, carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease, heart attack, stroke, chronic kidney disease, or premature death.
What Raises the Risk of High Cholesterol?Beyond diet, there are a number of lifestyle factors that can contribute to high cholesterol levels. Smoking is known to lower good cholesterol levels and also damages your arteries and blood vessels, raisin the risk of plaque buildup. Those who are more sedentary may also have a greater risk of having high cholesterol. Your risk can also be affected by your family history. Those with a family history of heart disease may need to take extra care in monitoring their cholesterol ratio because arteries harden with plaque buildup, meaning the body needs to work harder to pump blood. Diabetics may also have a greater risk, as their LDL particles tend to stick to arteries. Glucose also attaches to lippoproteins, which remains in the bloodstream longer and may lead to the formation of plaque.
Saturated Fat and CholesterolEating foods that are high in saturated fat can also raise your “bad” cholesterol levels, thus raising your heart attack risk. The American Heart Association states that foods high in saturated fat include meat like beef, lamb, poultry, and pork. Dairy products include butter, cream, and cheese made from 2 percent or whole milk. Some plant-based foods include saturated fat: coconut, coconut oil and cocoa butter, palm oil, and palm kernel oil. A recent study published in the Journal of Internal Cardiology revealed that eating less meat and more plant-based foods lowers your risk of heart attack. “We found that eating relatively little of the longer chained saturated fatty acids and consuming plant-based proteins instead was associated with a lowered risk. Substitution of those saturated fats with other energy sources such as carbohydrates did not affect the risk to develop myocardial infarction,” said study lead investigator, Dr. Ivonne Sluijs of Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
Do Vegans Need to Worry About Cholesterol?Those who follow a plant-based diet are known to have lower cholesterol levels compared to those who consume animal products. According to Livestrong, for a food item to contain dietary cholesterol, it must come from an animal-based source. Cholesterol is still important to certain bodily functions, but your body is typically able to produce everything it needs. If you are looking to lower your cholesterol, consult with your doctor about introducing more plant-based meals into your diet.
Which Foods Lower Bad Cholesterol?
If you have high cholesterol, there are a number of plant-based foods that can help lower your levels, according to Harvard Health.