What you need to know about cholesterol

The word  “cholesterol” is usually associated with heart disease, and often with dietary fat, but is it all bad?  Why do we need cholesterol?

Cholesterol is only found in animals – not plants.  It is a ‘lipid’ which means it is fat-related, and a vital component of several cell functions to make new cell membranes and to make a range of steroid hormones.

Animal foods which contain fat may also contain cholesterol. However, most of the cholesterol needed in our bodies is made by our own cells in a carefully regulated way.  Only a small amount of what we need comes from the cholesterol in the foods that we consumer.

Did you know?  Dietary cholesterol is actually of little importance because we don’t absorb most of it.  When our body contains too much cholesterol, it has mostly been made in our own livers, and the culprits are dietary saturated and trans-fats, rather than the cholesterol from our foods.

Measuring cholesterol

We measure cholesterol in the blood, where there are 3 different types:

  1. high-density lipoproteins (HDL) – also known as “good” cholesterol;
  2. low density lipoproteins (LDL); and
  3. very low density lipoproteins (VLDL).

These lipoproteins  (a combination of fat and protein) carry cholesterol through our bloodstream to where it is needed.  When there is excess cholesterol,  LDL and VLDL carry cholesterol into blood vessels – where they can stick to the walls of your arteries, forming plaques/deposits which can block your arteries.

In time this prevents blood flowing through them normally, hence heart attack or stroke.  HDL carries cholesterol out of the body tissues back to the liver, so is sometimes known as “good” cholesterol.  Higher levels of HDL cholesterol reduce the risk of heart disease but higher levels of LDL cholesterol increase the risk.