Vilified for years and signaled as the culprit of many health problems, cholesterol is often misunderstood by many. The main mistake we make is to fail to understand what is cholesterol.
The first thing to know is that our body needs cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy substance, a type of lipid, biosynthesized by our body to build healthy cells. It is an essential component of our cell membranes.
Like many other elements, it is the excess that becomes problematic for our bodies and our health – the issue is high cholesterol and not the substance per se. When we have high cholesterol levels, our blood vessels start to accumulate fatty deposits, which block the flow in our arteries. If one of these deposits’ breaks, a clot can develop and lead to a heart stroke.
Balancing and controlling our cholesterol level is primordial to our health. The National Institute of Health categorizes control cholesterol as the number one risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Do you know what the worst part is? There is no such thing as high symptoms. There’s no way to determine if our cholesterol levels are too high unless we periodically monitor them through blood tests.
Cholesterol is measured in milligrams per deciliter of blood. Desired levels depend on age and gender, but as a rule of thumb, anyone with cholesterol over 200 mg/dL is at serious risk.
What causes high cholesterol levels?
Certain diseases such as chronic kidney disease, lupus, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and Hypothyroidism can increase your cholesterol levels. Additionally, specific medications used to treat cancer, acne, and HIV/AIDS, among other diseases, can also trigger high cholesterol levels.
Scientists, doctors, and health experts seemed to be unable to reach a consensus when signaling the consumption of red meat as a risk factor for high cholesterol and hence, cardiovascular disease.
For example, a study that reviewed 54 documents from literature concerning red meat consumption concluded that it wasn’t red meat that elevated cholesterol levels but saturated fat ingested from oils, spreads, snacks, fast foods, and other processed meat.
Nonetheless, the study referred to lean meat -meat that doesn’t have visible fat in it. Lean meat is considered a good source of protein, omegas, and vitamins when consumed in moderation.
Another study leaned more towards the belief that the level of processing and the number of preservatives -such as sodium -account for most of the risk. Meats, both white (chicken, turkey, rabbit) and red (pork, beef, lamb) can be preserved. The food industry usually uses high levels of salt, or preservatives – in processed meat – to keep them. For example, sodium is one of the most common preservatives in processed red meat. Processed products have four times the sodium content and 1.5 times the nitrate content than unprocessed meat. The study states that ingesting high quantities of sodium increases blood pressure, lowers arterial compliance, and increases the risk of hypertension – especially in women.
As mentioned, aside from sodium, nitrates and their byproducts are other commonly-used meat preservatives. The same study claims that nitrates induce insulin resistance -which can potentially lead to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Another nitrate byproduct – streptozotocin – has been linked to the onset of diabetes.
Despite the swaying opinions, one thing has been proved: lifestyle and eating habits can lower the risk of high cholesterol and reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, most of us lean towards highly-processed red meat and/or those cuts with visible fat in them; not only that, but the USA consumes three times more red meat than the global average.
A study from 2011 concluded that:
“Overall meat consumption has continued to rise in the U.S., European Union, and developed world. Twenty-two percent of the meat consumed in the U.S. is processed. Given the plausible epidemiologic evidence for red and processed meat intake in cancer and chronic disease risk, understanding the trends of meat consumption in the U.S., where meat is consumed at more than three times the global average, should be particularly pertinent to researchers and other public health professionals aiming to reduce the global burden of chronic disease.”
What health professionals are debating is not whether meat ingestion is purely healthy; the debate comes to whether white meat is as harmful as red meat. Research published by Harvard claims that plant-based diets beat both red and white meat when fighting high cholesterol levels.
What causes high cholesterol?
LIST OF FOODS THAT INCREASE YOUR RISK OF HIGH CHOLESTEROL
- Fried foods: anything deep fried (such as fried chicken or cheese sticks) contains high levels of trans fats.
- Fast food: fast food is the number one culprit for belly fat, linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, etc. Fast food also causes a high level of inflammation.
- Processed meats: bacon, sausages, salami, and everything in between are highly processed meats and contain alarming levels of fat and sodium. Consumption of processed meats is associated with numerous diseases, including heart ailments and colon cancer.
- Desserts: desserts and highly sugared foods are rich in unhealthy fats, empty calories, and added sugars. Consumption leads to weight gain, mental decline, certain cancers, and heart disease.
How to Lower Cholesterol
DO DRUGS WORK?
It would be naïve to think that a simple pill can solve all of our health problems; unfortunately, many Americans still believe so.
The most popular medication to treat high cholesterol levels is statins. The effectiveness varies considerably from person to person, and doctors still recommend -even when taking the medication -a healthy diet and getting enough exercise.
Statins are not free from unpleasant side effects as with every other medication. Patients report secondary effects are muscle pain, nausea, stomach pain, constipation, and higher blood sugar levels.
Aside from the unpleasant side effects, there are other variables to consider when assessing the effectiveness of the medication as the sole resource to fight high cholesterol:
- Statins are not strong enough to lower very high cholesterol levels. Doctors and patients need to come up with more comprehensive strategies.
- Statins are not enough to lower cholesterol levels if the patient is still eating foods rich in saturated fats or processed foods.
- Statins don’t work automatically. The effects start to show up about two months after first consumption. Nevertheless, a healthy diet and daily exercise can improve your fitness level, energy, and overall health from day one.
- When they don’t work out, doctors usually prescribe higher doses.
- Your cholesterol levels may be linked to other problems -such as thyroid diseases -and in those cases, statins will not lower your cholesterol levels.
HOW CAN I REDUCE MY MEAT CONSUMPTION?
Lowering our red meat consumption is a goal we all should have. It is the best option to reduce our risk of many diseases, but it is also the most eco-conscious decision we can make right now. With our many different routines and lifestyles, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” formula to do it. Some will opt to become vegetarians. But there are other options:
- Reduce your meat portions. If you find it impossible to go one day without meat (red or white), you can at least reduce the amount considerably and fill your plate with veggies, grains, legumes, fruits, and good carbs.
- Try to opt for leaner meats (red or white) and stay away, as much as you can, from highly processed meat products.
- Choose some days of the week and label them as “no meat” days. With tons of apps, vegetarian websites, and channels available, lacking imagination is not an excuse. There are endless delicious, easy, cheap recipes out there for you to try.