Nutrition Myths
What is cholesterol? Did you know it is harmless?

SUMMARY

  • Cholesterol is an essential component in our bodies and has many vital functions. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to survive.
  • Cholesterol by itself does not cause or initiate the buildup of the atherosclerotic plaque, but small, dense lipoproteins do.
  • It is only used as a building material, just like calcium and fat molecules, once the damage to the vascular tissue is already done.
  • Many people confuse cholesterol with lipoprotein.
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What is cholesterol? Did you know it is harmless?

The following is a list of the most important characteristics of cholesterol in order to understand why there are so many myths about it. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

What is cholesterol?

  • Cholesterol is a type of fat molecule used as part of the structure of every cell in the body;
  • Cholesterol is produced by almost every cell in the body, except for brain cells, with the liver being the major producer;
  • Cholesterol is not water soluble (called hydrophobic – “afraid of water”), which means that it does not mix well with blood. It is carried through blood inside a transport mechanism. Otherwise, it just floats and doesn’t move along with the blood flow;
  • The transport mechanism of cholesterol is called lipoprotein, which has a water friendly layer on the surface and keeps all of the fatty particles inside, separated from the blood. Think of them as tiny submarines carrying a load (cholesterol and other lipids) through tunnels filled with blood.
  • Chemical structure of cholesterol.
    Cholesterol is a molecule containing 27 carbon atoms. Structurally, it consists of three parts: a hydrocarbon tail, a ring structure with 4 hydrocarbon rings and a hydroxyl group.

Cholesterol structure

Where does cholesterol come from?

  • The biggest source of cholesterol comes from the re-absorbed cholesterol made by our own body;
  • Our bodies are usually capable of maintaining a healthy cholesterol level, by increasing or decreasing it when needed, although a combination of genetics, diet and lifestyle may also have an effect on cholesterol levels;
  • A large portion of dietary cholesterol comes in a form which is not absorbed but excreted (called esterified cholesterol – CE); (10)
  • The small portion of cholesterol derived from food that is absorbed has a very little effect on the overall level of cholesterol in the body. Some foods, however, such as carbohydrates, may increase the production of cholesterol in your body.

What are the functions of cholesterol? Why it is harmless?

Cholesterol is essential to our survival, since:

  • It is an important component of cell membranes, since it provides their structural integrity and fluidity;
  • It is used in the production of steroid hormones, such as testosterone, cortisol and estrogens;
  • It is used in the production of bile acids;
  • It is used in the production of vitamin D.

Cholesterol can be used to form a plaque on the artery wall, but only in presence of specific factors such as damaged artery walls, high blood pressure, high level of small and dense lipoproteins. (read more..)

Therefore, by itself cholesterol doesn’t pose any health threats. It is possible to have a higher than usual total cholesterol and a perfectly good cardiovascular health provided that other risk factors are not present.

Epidemiological studies don’t find an association between dietary cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases, so eating eggs is not unhealthy!

Cholesterol test

The common cholesterol tests do not give conclusive results, since they measure the amount of cholesterol particles instead of a number of small, dense LDL lipoproteins responsible for dumping its contents (building material of the plaque) in the artery walls.

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NUTRITION FACTS VS NUTRITION MYTHS

You will find a summary of the most common nutrition myths and evidence-based nutrition facts here.

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