Confused About Cholesterol? Read This

A cholesterol test measures four different types of lipids in the blood giving your total cholesterol levels. Wanting to knowing which is the 'good cholesterol' and which is the 'bad one' is a common question. Clarifying the answer to this questions starts with a understanding of what happens to the different types of fat once they are inside the body.

Breaking Down Fat

Fats and oils are made up of fat molecules called fatty acids.  Fatty acids have two classifications. They can be classified according to their saturation - saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

They can also be classified on the length of the carbon chain in the fatty acid, such as short chain fatty acids (SCFA), medium chain fatty acids (MCFA) + long-chain fatty acids (LCFA). Another term is triglyceride, which is three fatty acids joined together. Here you can have short-chain triglycerides (SCT), medium chain triglycerides (MCT) or long-chain triglycerides (LCT).

Most oils and fats, saturated or unsaturated, plant or animal based are made up of LCTs. Coconut oil however is made up largely of MCTs. Organic butter also contains some MCTs. 

Once ingested, most fats require the assistance of the pancreas and its enzymes to be broken down into smaller parts, which are then absorbed into the intestinal wall, where they pair up with protein to make lipoproteins. Lipoproteins get carried in the body by the lymphatic system until they are dumped into the bloodstream and circulated throughout the body. As they circulate in the bloodstream, the fat portion of the lipoprotein is distributed to all the tissues in the body, until they get smaller and smaller, until finally the liver picks them up, breaks them apart, and uses them for energy if needed, or, they are repackaged into other lipoproteins and sent back out into the bloodstream.

MCFA's however, are broken down by saliva and the gastric juices of the stomach into individual fatty acids and absorbed directly from the intestines into the liver (via the portal vein) where they are used for fuel. As they are used for fuel and energy, they are less likely to be stored as body fat. 

So how about that cholesterol?

This knowledge comes in handy when we consider cholesterol. Cholesterol is carried in our blood attached to the lipoproteins, which are classified into low density lipoprotein (LDL) and high density lipoprotein (HDL). HDH, LDL and your triglyceride level make up your total cholesterol count. LDL is considered bad as it is what contributes to plaque, a thick hard deposit that can clog arteries and make them less flexible.

HDL is the good guy as it helps to remove LDL cholesterol from arteries and take it back to the liver where it can be broken down and passed from the body. 

Triglycerides are energy that has been consumed but the body has not needed to use. Any energy the body does not use is converted into triglycerides and stored between fat cells, where hormones release them for later use when needed. Eating more calories than needed results in high triglycerides. 

To keep HDL + LDL cholesterol levels balanced, focus on replacing unhealthy trans fats found in most packaged, deep fried and commercially made foods with heart healthy unsaturated fats, such as cold water fish, salmon and mackerel, avocados, nuts, seeds and cold pressed olive oil. Keep your intake of saturated fats found in meat and dairy to a balanced minimum. Regular exercise and lowering stress levels will aid in maintaining a healthy weight as will avoiding drinking too much alcohol. Avoiding too much alcohol has the benefit of giving your liver some time off, and looking after your liver is a major step in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Adding in vegetables from the cruciferous family, such as broccoli and cabbage and eating a plant based whole food diet will help further help the liver with maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, and has the bonus of aiding in overall health and wellbeing.