Long question short, what’s cholesterol? We know that high levels of it can be harmful to our health, but that high levels of it can also be beneficial, confusingly enough.
The term isn’t to be overlooked or ignored, as medical experts warn -- because dangerous levels can lead to serious health complications, including heart attack and even death. What really, then, is the fleshed out description behind this one-word, obscurity of a term?
Cholesterol, in the broad sense, is a fatty, wax-like substance that is obtained by way of food consumption and also produced from the liver. Though the term often gets a bad rap, it’s necessary for survival because cholesterol contributes toward the body’s biological elements like hormones and cell membranes.
Nicole Brown, M.S., R.D., L.D., H.F.S., of For the Health of It! in Springfield, Va., is a nutrition consultant to clients in the D.C. metropolitan area as well as for the George Washington University Weight Management Program. Brown, who’s dished out weight management advice on the show Oprah, explains the two variations and roles of cholesterol -- low density lipoprotein (LDL) and high density lipoprotein (HDL).
“LDL carries cholesterol in the blood to different tissues. This contributes to plaque formation in blood vessels,” said Brown. For this reason, LDL is often referred to as the “bad” type of cholesterol, because excess cholesterol is transported back into the body. High levels of LDL can lead to atherosclerosis, a disease which hardens the arteries. If this condition’s activated, then angina and heart attack can occur; stroke and peripheral artery disease may be induced as well.
On the other hand, as Brown differentiates, HDL removes excess cholesterol from the body’s cells to the liver, where it’s disposed, thus making it the “good” type of cholesterol. “HDL carries cholesterol to the liver where it is made into bile, which helps with the digestion of fat,” stated Brown.
Brian Foreman, editor and studio technician of Home Front Communications, is concerned about high levels of bad cholesterol and tries to moderate his cholesterol intake, especially around the holidays.
“With the normal, available foods there is a lot of bad cholesterol and cholesterol-heavy foods to avoid,” he said.
Keeping bad cholesterol levels in check around the holidays isn’t always easy, either, because buffet spreads are generally a landmine of -- you guessed it -- fat.
“During the holidays, we tend to serve rich and delicious food items when we host family and friends,” said Brown. She goes on to explain that fatty foods, particularly those with high levels of saturated fats (think, fats generally solid at room temperature like butter), are the key dietary factor responsible for raising bad cholesterol levels.
So how do you know which holiday foods on the buffet table are high in saturated fat? Well, according to Brown’s list, most likely all of your favorites: “Saturated fat sources include turkey skin, the visible fat on beef, egg nog, cheese, dips made with cream cheese and sour cream, butter, pie crust [and] deep fried turkey,” she said.
If cheese and fried foods are generally staples in your everyday diet, then consider limiting intake of saturated and trans fat. Gradually increase your level of physical activity and incorporate more fruits and veggies into your diet (and no, fried bananas and pickles do not count).
In addition, Brown recommends that the average person should consume less than 200 milligrams of cholesterol per day. In terms of saturated fat intake, women should typically consume less than 12 grams daily and men should consume less than 16 grams. (Note, though, that these numbers are generalities -- each person’s specific cholesterol intake levels should be calculated by a dietitian or physician.)
Don’t let LDL hog the cholesterol spotlight, though -- raising HDL levels is crucial for maintaining healthy overall cholesterol levels, as well. Weight loss and physical activity are again factors in raising good cholesterol levels (as they are with lowering LDL levels). In conjunction with a well-balanced diet, the Mayo Clinic adds that foods like whole grains, nuts, omega-3 fatty acids and plant sterols (found, for instance, in margarine spreads like Promise activ or Benecol) may have beneficial effects on cholesterol levels.
Even though Foreman is conscious of his food intake and tries to eat veggies and whole grains on a regular basis, he admits that passing up holiday foods around this time of the year is a challenge in and of itself.
“The worst is December, especially when you are in a work environment where packages full of treats are coming through the door constantly,” said Foreman. “It's OK to indulge a little. Little snacks are OK, but you gotta remember that the little bits add up.”
So how should people like Foreman know if their cholesterol levels are in the clear -- or, if their levels waiver near The Danger Zone?
“Blood tests are the current means for monitoring cholesterol levels,” said Brown. If tests come back indicative that LDL levels are high and HDL not high enough, then consult with a registered dietitian to determine the necessary dietary and lifestyle changes.
As the spirit of holiday festivus continues, go on and chime in with the “ho, ho, hos.” A gingerbread man here and there certainly won’t hurt, but it’s after you’ve devoured an army of them that you should probably think twice about your eating habits.
So, for the sake of your cholesterol levels and your general health, pass up that eighth gingerbread man and muster the willpower to say, “no, no, no.”