What is Cholesterol and How It Affects Heart Health

What is Cholesterol and How It Affects Heart Health

Are you someone who knows the basics around how your diet and lifestyle can lead to better heart health, but you likely have a ton of questions too. Like, what actually is cholesterol and how does cholesterol affect heart health? Are there any foods that lower cholesterol?  

Keep reading to find out: 

  • What is cholesterol? 
  • The relationship between cholesterol and heart health
  • Reasons for high cholesterol
  • How to reduce cholesterol with diet and lifestyle strategies
  • Specific foods that reduce cholesterol

What is cholesterol and how does it affect our heart?

Cholesterol is a fat-like molecule that is critical for life. While cholesterol is often vilified, we actually need it. The myth though is that we need to consume cholesterol in order for it to have an effect in the body.

The truth is that our liver makes all the cholesterol we need. Most people don’t realize that most of the cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream is made by the body itself. And for most of us, the cholesterol we get from animal sources like eggs, butter, and beef, doesn’t have much impact on blood cholesterol levels.  For hypersensitive people however, it might. But what science tells us is that if your cholesterol is already at a certain level, eating additional sources of dietary cholesterol isn’t going to make much of a difference.

Cholesterol serves a valuable purpose in the body so it makes sense that we can produce it for:

  • Cell membrane structure
  • Gene expression
  • Growth and development 
  • Vitamin D production
  • Sex hormone production
  • Brain and cognitive health 

When we talk about cholesterol, we are really referring to lipoproteins. These are transport molecules made from fats and proteins that help carry fat, cholesterol, and fat-soluble nutrients through the bloodstream. The ones we commonly hear about are LDL and HDL. 

Lipoproteins are the “cholesterol” that is measured in the blood when you go for your annual bloodwork. You are probably familiar with these terms: 

  • LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, brings fat and cholesterol from the liver to cells throughout the body. It’s the “bad cholesterol” because it is linked to heart disease when it’s oxidized. Consuming saturated fat in excess of 10% of your total intake will likely raise your LDL.  This is the most important lipoprotein to monitor.
  • HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is known as the “good cholesterol.” But updated science tells us that HDL is actually neutral and has no medicinal affect on our health. Meaning, taking prescription medications that raise HDL not only do not prevent cardiac events but they actually increase them.  If your HDL is low and your triglycerides and LDL cholesterol is elevated, this is a strong indicator you need to pay attention to your cardiometabolic health.
  • Total cholesterol is a measurement of all the lipoproteins together, including LDL, HDL, VLDL, non-HDL and others. 
  • Triglycerides are fat molecules made of three fatty acids connected to a glycerol molecule. This is what the body uses to store fat. Having elevated TGs is a clear sign that your diet and lifestyle are ready for a tune up.  

What is the relationship between cholesterol and heart health?

We need to monitor our LDL, Triglycerides and non-HDL cholesterol in order to understand if and to what extent our cholesterol is impacting our heart health.  The higher our LDL cholesterol, the more likely we are developing heart disease every minute. As LDL oxidizes and causes inflammation it makes us more susceptible to cardiac disease. Additionally, the longer we have LDL in circulation, the higher the risk becomes. So it is always a good time to get your lab work done and work with a doctor and registered dietitian to properly monitor and manage your health.

Why has my cholesterol suddenly increased?

If you notice sudden changes in your lipids your doctor will be curious about other metabolic changes such as thyroid function or if you’re a woman, sex hormone fluctuations.  Menopause is a time when estrogen drops and since low estrogen increases LDL cholesterol, it’s highly recommended all women going through this transitional period of life get their lipids evaluated annually.

Other reasons why cholesterol may have quickly risen:

  • Inflammation (your doctor may order a lab called hs-CRP)
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Smoking
  • Hypothyroidism (low thyroid function)
  • Weight Gain
  • Change in diet
  • Gut microbiome dysbiosis and digestive health issues

You can lower LDL and triglycerides with a focus on diet. It’s important to take an objective look at what you’re eating and make sure:

  • You’re eating the appropriate amount of calories for your unique needs and stage of life
  • You consume a plant-rich diet with plenty of antioxidants and polyphenols
  • Fiber intake is greater than 25g if you’re a woman and 35g if you’re a man.  More fiber is better. As soluble fiber increases, even if by 5g, LDL tends to decrease.
  • Saturated fat is kept below 10% of total intake

Can diet reduce cholesterol?

Yes, it can! That’s why here at Scott’s Protein Balls, we’ve worked hard to incorporate specific ingredients into our protein balls that help with cholesterol.

The good news is that the same foods that improve other areas of health and increase longevity are the exact foods that improve cholesterol levels. While it’s not always easy to make changes, having ingredients that are quick, easy and tasty make it fun! Scott’s Protein Balls contain ingredients like chia seeds, cacao, flax seed, almonds, peanuts and oats that are heart healthy foods. 

Here are some guidelines for choosing ingredients: 

  • As much as you can, focus on limiting ultra-processed foods and create snacks and meals from real food ingredients.
  • Swap out refined sugars for fruit alternatives or even sugar free alternatives like monk fruit or allulose. 
  • Always pair a carbohydrate with a healthy fat like cashews and a protein, like pea protein. 
  • Choose lower glycemic carbohydrates that have been minimally processed. Instead of refined white flour, choose oat flour.
  • Choose quality fats like peanuts, avocados, olive oil, and even MCT oil.  Avoid trans fats.
  • Enjoy omega-3 fats like those in chia, flax seeds and fatty fish like salmon

The journey to understanding cholesterol and its impact on heart health is both complex and enlightening. Cholesterol, often misunderstood, plays a vital role in our body's functioning, from cell membrane structure to hormone production. However, its management is crucial for heart health, emphasizing the importance of monitoring LDL, HDL, and triglyceride levels. Lifestyle and dietary choices play a significant role in this management, with the potential to significantly alter cholesterol levels for the better.

Incorporating Scott's Protein Balls as a dietary option underscores the possibility of integrating heart-healthy foods into your diet in a delicious and convenient way. By choosing ingredients wisely and focusing on whole, minimally processed foods, individuals can make significant strides towards improving their cholesterol levels and, by extension, their overall heart health.

  • Lori Levine is an eternal optimist and after undergoing breast cancer treatment, she learned she had to upgrade her snacks to upgrade her health. She and her husband Scott became accidental entrepreneurs after he lovingly created quality protein balls made from tasty, easily recognizable ingredients that are as convenient as they are healthy and delicious! Even better? 1% of all sales are donated to Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) to help support breast cancer research. #betheend.