What Really Causes High Cholesterol?May 12, 2023
When most of us hear high cholesterol, we usually think of someone who is unhealthy, whether because of lifestyle or genetics. Whatever the case, it’s traditionally seen as a health issue we need to fix. And this is personal to me because I have high cholesterol. Every other aspect of my bloodwork came back perfectly, except the LDL (bad cholesterol).
LDL means low-density lipoprotein, which we should pay attention to the most compared to HDL (good cholesterol). LDL is the primary source of cholesterol buildup and blockage in the arteries, while HDL is the one that helps remove cholesterol from your arteries.
It's a normal thought process that a person would either have high cholesterol or not, but it's not so black and white. In my case, I had one good number (HDL) and one bad number (LDL). So, let’s break it down.
LDL (low-density lipoproteins)
Low-density lipoproteins are like cotton candy, very sticky. So as these float through your veins and arteries, they tend to stick, building plaque. This type of plaque builds up on your arterial wall, making the pathway harder to get through. This buildup causes heart attacks and strokes because blood can’t flow easily through.
HDL (high-density lipoproteins)
The name itself would make us think that high density = high cholesterol. But high density here means very dense or compact. These lipoproteins are like marbles. They’re smooth and float through very freely. But if you have a lot of plaque in your arteries, even great HDLs won’t be able to get through them easily. This is when someone can experience a blockage, possibly needing stents.
Many of us have heard of the term bypass in relation to the heart. Usually, it comes with a double, triple, or even quadruple in front of it. My dad had a triple bypass and experienced his first heart attack around 55. He had two stents put in then Now, my dad didn't live the healthiest of lives, but he was in shape at one point. He used to run, but he also believed in the coffee and cigarette diet, mixing in alcohol and a lot of sugar too. He partied but also worked his butt off. So, I assumed my dad’s health was impacted by his lifestyle.
But then, at one of the healthiest points in my life, I was told I had high cholesterol. So that had me wondering if it was something hereditary because it can be for many. Genetically speaking, your body might be unable to break down cholesterol properly.
So, it’s safe to say that if you check all the boxes and you’re doing all of the right things, like eating right, getting all your essential fatty acids, exercising, sleeping well, and minimizing stressors in your life, and still have high cholesterol, it’s most likely due to a genetic predisposition.
Think about the cotton candy vs. marble comparison. You might think, why do I need both? Can’t I just have the HDLs sliding easily through my arteries and call it a day? No. We need a balance of both. It's good for us because we need to eat some type of saturated fat. After all, it gives us different minerals. So, it all comes back to the LDL vs. HDL ratio or the total cholesterol.
Total cholesterol is the total amount of cholesterol that’s circulating in your blood (HDL + LDL + 20% triglycerides).
Triglycerides are a type of fat, but it’s important to remember that we all need some triglycerides as long as that number isn’t too high. Triglycerides are formed from the industrial process. It’s anytime we add hydrogen into our foods, and we have partially hydrogenated oils or anything in a box or processed. All of this causes our triglycerides to go up, and if it goes too high, it causes heart attacks.
My triglycerides were low, very low. Now, has my diet been perfect? Absolutely not. Is it better than probably 95% of the people in America? Most likely because, generally, I eat really healthily. I’m a big proponent of creating a simple and sustainable diet. For me, that consists of bananas, oatmeal, rice, eggs, chicken, vegetables, coffee creamer, and a handful of nuts here and there, and sometimes everywhere. So, what causes the increase in LDLs?
Is it red meat or sugars that cause LDLs and an unhealthy ratio?
There can be numerous factors involved in high cholesterol, but when looking at diet alone, what should we eat more or less to lower cholesterol? For example, should we cut out or cut down our red meat intake? Is it the amount of sugar we should pay attention to?
It’s not just red meat because we all know people who eat a ton of it, and their cholesterol is fine. Sugar causes a lot of this because when you're eating a lot of sugar, your blood sugar goes up, you're producing insulin rapidly, and your metabolism's not working correctly, meaning you're not metabolizing food the right way. Add in lack of sleep and stress or high cortisol levels, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Healthy sleep practices are something I’ve fallen off on. For example, in the past 6 months, I’ve been averaging 3-5 hours a night, so that’s a contributing factor, especially considering the CDC states that 7 or more hours per day is a healthy sleep duration.
It's important to keep in mind that every body is different. Some people feel their best without red meat in their diet, while some enjoy meat and feel healthier with it. It’s all about finding a balance to a healthy body-fat percentage while eating good, healthy fats.
Saturated vs. unsaturated fats
Saturated fat – Solid at room temperature. This fat raises LDLs and is found in animal-based foods like beef, pork, poultry, full-fat dairy products, eggs, and tropical oils like coconut or palm.
Unsaturated fat – Liquid at room temperature. This fat is beneficial because it can improve cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation, and help heart health. Foods include avocados, olives, nuts, fish, olive oil, and dark chocolate.
I know I’m guilty of eating the same things because it’s easy. But as we all get further along in our fitness and wellness journeys, we have to be comfortable incorporating different things and different types of food. Variety is good for both the mental and physical. Try sticking to the same foods for a week and then the following week change it up.
So, in addition to the dietary changes, what else can you do?
Unless there are red flags, get your blood tested consistently, at least once a year. If you see significant changes, consider making the necessary adjustments and retest in 6 months. I’ve seen people completely change their cholesterol in 3 months – 3 months, that’s it. So, be proactive, change the course, and watch the transformation.
Check out this full podcast episode with more details about Anthony’s wellness journey here.
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