What is cholesterol and why is it important to my heart?

posted by Christy Tunnell, MBA, RD, CD on September 9, 2016 Cholesterol

To egg or not to egg…that is the question???  If you are like most Americans, you are likely confused about whether or not eggs are good for you, and if they are, how many can you eat per week.  Well, the controversy stems from a concern about cholesterol.

Many Americans do not understand the role that cholesterol—a fat-like substance found in all cells of the body—plays a role in heart health and heart disease. When there is too much cholesterol in the blood, cholesterol can build up on artery walls and slow or stop blood flow to the heart.

In the 1980’s “cholesterol” was neigh on to a curse word, along with, dare I say…”fat”.  Since then, the available research and our consequent knowledge about how vitally important good cholesterol and heart healthy fats are for our diet, have come a long way.

So, what is cholesterol, and why does my doctor measure it?  Cholesterol is found throughout the body.  Your body can make all you need, but it is also found in many foods (mostly animal products).  Our bodies need some cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help digest foods.

Cholesterol travels through the bloodstream in small packages called lipoproteins. The two main kinds of lipoproteins are:

High blood cholesterol is a condition in which you have too much cholesterol in your blood (this is what your doctor measures).  By itself, the condition usually has no signs or symptoms. So, many people don’t know that their cholesterol levels are too high, without being tested.  High blood cholesterol gives you a much greater chance of having heart disease, because plaque builds up inside the coronary arteries, a condition called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis can lead to serious problems, including heart attack, stroke, or even death.

So, what is the good news?  Well, your grandparents were right, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is great for you (science won’t change on that fundamental).  One of the best attributes of a diet rich in plant foods is getting plenty of fiber.  Fruits, vegetables, and grains (brown rice, quinoa, and oats) are all rich in fiber.  Fiber, is either soluble or insoluble.  Soluble fiber reduces your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and reduces the absorption of cholesterol into your bloodstream.  Soluble and insoluble fiber both help carry excess cholesterol from your body, via waste, so that it cannot build up on the artery walls.  Fiber is found in such foods as fruits, vegetables, grains, kidney beans, apples, pears, barley and prunes.  Feel free to take advantage of all the great Indiana summer crops from your garden, neighbor, grocery or farmer’s market…they are all great for you, and will help keep your Hoosier heart healthy!

Christy Tunnell, MBA, RD, CD is a past President for the Indiana Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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