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What Is Cholesterol All About?

Por Eleazar Lara-Pantin, MD, MSc.* -

We are inundated with messages that warn us that cholesterol is bad. But what many of you may not know is that this type of fat is essential to our health.

Due to the link between high levels of cholesterol in the blood and the risk of suffering atherosclerosis, it’s important for you to know what your cholesterol level is so you can avoid any serious problems.

Why is it so important?
Unlike triglycerides, cholesterol doesn't contain fatty acids and its importance lies in that it forms part of the essential components of each and every cell in our bodies, as well as of vital substances such as hormones and bile.

Cholesterol is derived from two sources: products of animal origin, as well as from our own body, which produces it from saturated fatty acids. The latter provides vegetarians with cholesterol, since saturated fatty acids are found in vegetable products.

What makes it go up?
The levels of cholesterol in our blood are closely linked to our lifestyle, and, more precisely, to how we eat and how physically active we are. Beyond the issue of how much cholesterol is good for us, there are two very important elements. The first refers to the genetic factors that help explain why a certain amount or type of dietary fat affects the blood cholesterol of some people more than others. The second factor has to do with the role played by certain foods in generating, with greater or lesser facility, such a problem.

Since the number of people at risk of having high cholesterol levels is progressively increasing, you should focus preventive measures on lifestyle-related components. The first thing we have to take care of to prevent hypercholesterolemia (high levels of blood cholesterol) is our nutrition. Avoid the excess and frequent consumption of products that contribute to increasing cholesterol. Some of the products we should pay more attention to are foods of animal origin, and vegetable fats that remains solid at room temperature, such as margarine.

When you eat animal products, it's advisable to avoid the visible forms of fat. This is the case of chicken skin fat and fat found in certain cuts of meat. This group also includes whole milk and dairy products, such as butter, cheese, and ice cream.

An exception to foods of animal origin is fish, whose fat behaves differently, to the point that many studies have shown its possible effect in controlling triglyceride levels and its contribution to improving blood cholesterol. The latter is also attributed to doing exercise on a regular basis.

Stay away from the vegetable fats that stay solid at room temperature. Although vegetable fat does not contain any cholesterol--because cholesterol is only found in products of animal origin--these fats stimulate the body to produce cholesterol. This is due to their high content of saturated fatty acids, from which the human body can produce its own cholesterol.

Brief conclusion
Once we understand what cholesterol is, we can conclude that in order to prevent heart and artery disease associated with hypercholesterolemia we should select our food based on the principles mentioned above, and try to incorporate some kind of regular physical activity into our lifestyle.

*Dr. Lara-Pantin, a nutrition specialist, is Vice President of Product Development for DrTango, Inc.


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