What is the big deal about cholesterol? It is discussed on the news, at dinner parties and especially at your Doctor's office. Why is everyone so concerned about their cholesterol? The answer is simple: high cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease. To further complicate matters, there is both good and bad cholesterol. And what about eggs? Eggs yolks contain cholesterol, is eating eggs a risk factor for heart disease? This month, I shall try and explain all about cholesterol, how it can affect your health and eggs too.

There are two main types of cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). The LDL, or bad cholesterol, carries cholesterol throughout your body to the cells that need it. Cholesterol plays an important role in your health. Your body uses it to make sex hormones, vitamin D, and help nerves function properly. The problem with LDL, is that if you have too much, it just keeps floating around. After a while, these LDL pieces get smaller and are more likely to enter the walls of blood vessels. Deposits of bad cholesterol particles are called plaques. Eventually, these plaques can build up and narrow the space in blood vessels leading to impaired blood flow. This is referred to as atherosclerosis, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. In contrast HDL, or good cholesterol, travels around your body and picks up extra cholesterol. It then takes the extra cholesterol back to the liver for disposal. Generally, the more 'good' cholesterol you have, the less 'bad' cholesterol is present in your arteries.

There are many things that you can do to help lower your cholesterol without leaving home. Don't smoke; smoking can lower HDL cholesterol. Getting regular exercise can help raise HDL cholesterol and help you lose weight, both of these health changes can improve your cholesterol. With approval from your Doctor, try to get at least 30 minutes of physical aerobic activity 5 times a week. What exactly is physical aerobic activity? An easy way to recognize it is that it should raise your heart rate, make you breathe heavier, but not so much that your can't maintain a conversation. This might include brisk walking, cycling or ballroom dancing. Drink alcohol in moderation. This recommendation is a controversial one. Studies have shown that moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages can reduce the risk of developing certain diseases. Conversely, too much alcohol can raise your risk for developing these same diseases. It seems that one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men appears to be optimal. It is unwise to recommend people start drinking to improve their health, because the evidence is not that convincing. So continue to imbibe, in moderation, if it is something you already enjoy.

Your diet can also affect your cholesterol, but not the way you think. The American Heart Association wrote, “Saturated fats and trans fats are the main dietary factors in raising blood cholesterol.” Saturated fats generally come from animal products, palm and coconut oils. Trans fats mainly come from processed foods, look for the phrase “partially hydrogenated vegetable oils”. What about eggs? It is thought that if you eat less than seven eggs per week, there is no increased risk of heart disease. All of the cholesterol in eggs comes from the yolk, so scrambled egg whites do not contain cholesterol. Perhaps the significant risk of heart disease at the breakfast table are from the bacon, sausages and cooking oil. They may contain saturated and trans fats.  

Cinnamon is not normally associated with cholesterol reduction. However, in one small study 6g of cinnamon daily helped reduce LDL cholesterol by 27% and total cholesterol by 26%. Six grams of cinnamon is not that much, it's about one teaspoon. This could easily be sprinkled on cereal or oatmeal in the morning, provided you like the taste of cinnamon. It is important to use the correct kind of cinnamon as there are two main varieties. The type of cinnamon used in this study was Cinnamomum cassia. This spice is generally safe to use, but you should check with your Doctor or Heart Pharmacist before use. Higher doses of cinnamon can sometimes lower blood sugar and complicate the treatment of diabetes.

Dietary fibre is one of the most overlooked options to help lower cholesterol. One study found that 3.4 g of psyllium taken three times a day lowered LDL by 20%. Fibre works due to its ability to bind to cholesterol in the gut, correct? Not necessarily. There is evidence that the metabolism of fibre may lead to the products, propionate (a short-chain fatty acid) and alpha-tocotrienol (similar to vitamin E), both of which can prevent your body from making its own supply of cholesterol. Consuming extra fibre can cause stomach related side effects such as gas, bloating and indigestion. If you wish to increase your intake of fibre, start with small amounts and work your way up from there. Increased fibre intake can interfere with the absorption of certain medications, ask your Heart Pharmacist for more information.

This is certainly a lot to digest, but there are many natural options to help reduce cholesterol. Many of these suggestions can be incorporated in one’s lifestyle, without even purchasing a supplement; increasing fibre intake, adding cinnamon, getting regular exercise and avoiding 'convenience' foods. Many convenience products have little nutritional value anyways; think about having an apple instead. Don’t be fooled by the ‘low-fat’ food phenomenon, which I feel can be a real problem. In many cases, these products are lower in fat but they have similar amounts of calories as their regular fat counterparts. Most of the fat calories are often replaced with sugar; high-fructose corn syrup and/or sucrose (50% fructose) to be exact. So you may not be any better off. So watch those labels, but better yet avoid processed foods. Your heart will thank you for it.

AuthorMonique de Moor