Making Sense of Cholesterol Guidelines

One thing I love about science and this world of health, wellness, and nutrition is that it is ever-changing. Study after study is performed, literature is written and then re-written, new things come about, old things fade away. It’s almost hard to even keep up, but we do. Every time there is a new nutrition guideline or discovery, my initial reaction is to huff and puff, but I always remind myself that science is ever changing.  

There are new discoveries and developments. Change is good.  I feel like the reason I get frustrated is because the message is not always communicated well. News media love to create drama and may not deliver the message appropriately or even accurately. So starts a motion within the public with said misinformation and it can turn pretty ugly if the facts are not corrected quickly. 

The most recent change in dietary guidelines is cholesterol. They are saying it’s not “the bad” guy anymore, meaning it’s not the sole contributor to heart disease.  You may have heard about it already. If not, you will. Most likely in the sense of “Remember when we said you can’t have eggs, well now you can. Go ahead and have your bacon egg and cheese sandwich every day.” Well, not quite. 

This is a lengthy post but full of information about fats, their role, and which are considered healthy to consume. As a dietitian, it is my duty to educate the public on the facts and set any myths or misinformation straight. There are no official guidelines yet, but I can tell you what this all will mean and how you can apply it to your lifestyle in a healthy way. 

So, cholesterol. Did you know your body makes it? It’s very important for the function of your body. Cholesterol helps absorb fat soluble vitamins, helps protect membranes of the cells in your body, it serves as the building blocks for some hormones and aids in the production of Vitamin D. It’s good stuff! 

Your body already has its own mechanism to regulate cholesterol. If you eat food with cholesterol present, it’s not the end of the world. Your body knows how to dispense it appropriately. Granted, if one were to eat 10 eggs every day, the total cholesterol will most definitely increase to the point where it can affect their health (that’s why moderation is key!). So yes, there are still guidelines as to how much cholesterol to consume, but the point of the study is to know that looking at cholesterol as a whole, is not the main problem. 

There are many different types of fats, some that are recommended to be consumed more than others. Each type of fat has a role in cholesterol, whether it be raising/lowering the healthy cholesterol (HDL cholesterol) and/or raising/lowering the non-healthy cholesterol (LDL cholesterol). 

We want our HDL cholesterol to be high at healthy levels, and our LDL cholesterol to be low at healthy levels. If we consume a diet that is inappropriately high in all types of fats, then this can contribute to high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. 

And that my friends, is why cholesterol as a whole is not the main culprit, it’s the type of fat you consume and its relationship to cholesterol. 

Below is a chart of which fats are considered healthy and non- healthy. 

Healthy fats (raises HDL, lowers LDL) Non-healthy fats (lowers HDL; raises LDL) 
Mono unsaturated fatty acids Saturated fat* 
Poly unsaturated fatty acids Trans fats 
Omega 3 fatty acids Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats 

The chart is pretty simple. Consume more of the healthy fats and less of the non-healthy fats. 

*Saturated fats have a small caveat. Saturated fats from animals are to be consumed less. Ever look at the marbling of a raw piece of steak? Its solid, even at room temperature. That fat can solidify again once its in your blood stream, veins and arteries, creating a buildup’ of plaque, which can lead to a decrease in blood flow, cardiovascular disease and cardiac events, like a heart attack and stroke. Very dangerous. 

However, there are saturated fats from plants, such as the coconut.  Studies show that saturated fats from plants are not as dangerous as saturated fats from animals, and can actually improve your overall cholesterol levels! 

Commercially used Trans fats and hydrogenated fats are bad, bad news. Try to avoid them as much as possible. These fats are not natural. They are man-made, which means their chemical structure has been altered. “Artificial trans fats (or trans fatty acids) are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid.” – American heart association. 

‘The primary dietary source for trans fats in processed foods is “partially hydrogenated oils.” Look for them on the ingredient list on food packages. In November 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) in human food. Food companies and restaurants use this type of fat because it is cheap and can last a long time. It is known to give food more flavor and because of its chemical structure, it won’t spoil easily, so it is used in a lot of packaged goods to allow the food to stay fresh longer.’ 

The reason we want to avoid these fats is because they can increase the LDL cholesterol, lower HDL cholesterol and cause free radical damage to cells. It increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and even type 2 diabetes.  Foods most commonly known to contain trans fats are baked or fried packaged goods like cookies, pie crusts, cakes, donuts, frozen pizzas, etc… pretty much anything that can last a long time on the shelf of a supermarket. 

The silver lining with trans fats: a lot of restaurants and companies are learning about the health risks involved with a diet containing trans fats/ partially hydrogenated oils, so they are starting to remove this fat as an ingredient in their foods. Some states in the US have gone as far as to ban this fat from being used in any restaurant or food service facility. Hallelujah! 

So now that we know which foods to limit or in some cases, avoid completely, let’s look at the foods that we can enjoy and can contribute to our health and wellbeing on a positive note: 

Unsaturated fats and omega -3 fatty acids 

These fats are more beneficial to your health due to their molecular structure which allows these fats/oils to be liquid at room temperature. So once consumed, they continue to hold its liquid properties and flow easily through your veins and arteries, not clogging or blocking the pathway for adequate and optimal blood flow. These are the types of fats that will help normalize your cholesterol and keep it at a healthy level. These types of fats are found in different types of nuts and seeds, plant oils (such as olive oil, flax seed oil, grapeseed oil, sesame seed oil, peanut oil, etc), fatty fish, and even some grains like quinoa. 

I hope I have given you enough information so the next time you hear about the new guidelines and Joe Schmoe is going on about how he can enjoy his bacon, egg and cheese sandwich every day, you are better prepared to come back with accurate information.