In every Filipino celebration that serves lechon, you might hear an uncle joking about his cholesterol after feasting on the succulent roasted pig. You might also hear remarks about cholesterol when there’s a bag of chicharron around or someone might complain that their head hurts after having some sisig.
People often associate pork with cholesterol and automatically assume that cholesterol is a bad thing. But in, reality, our bodies need cholesterol to survive as it performs a number of important functions. The key is to manage the bad kind of cholesterol and to increase the good kind.
Good vs. Bad Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a type of fat. According to the Harvard Medical School, it is an “essential building block for cell membranes and other crucial structures.” It helps protect nerves and helps produce hormones like testosterone and estrogen as well as the acids that break down fat. It comes from two sources: your liver and the food you eat, particularly those derived from animals (such as the aforementioned pork; other animal products like poultry and full-fat dairy products likewise contain cholesterol).
There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). HDL is known as the good cholesterol. It gathers cholesterol from the blood stream and delivers it to the liver, which then processes it and eliminates it as waste. LDL is known as the bad cholesterol. This harmful lipoprotein can cause buildup in the arteries. When arteries are blocked or when the buildup forms plaque that eventually causes a rupture, it may lead to a heart attack or stroke. This is why bad cholesterol is linked with cardiovascular disease.
Thus, having high levels of LDL is bad for you. Conversely, having high levels of HDL cholesterol is good for you. But while HDL is a scavenger that helps rid the body of the bad stuff, it doesn’t mean that you can counter a high LDL by loading up on high-HDL foods. According to the American Heart Association, only about a third to a fourth of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL.
It is thus important to manage your cholesterol in order to ensure heart health. While food should be part of a holistic approach which includes physical activity and the avoidance of harmful habits like smoking, diet is still a major part of keeping high HDL levels at bay.
Foods to Reduce Cholesterol
Recent studies seem to indicate that cholesterol in food doesn’t necessarily translate to cholesterol in your bloodstream and that saturated fat is a bigger villain when it comes to increasing bad cholesterol in your bloodstream. This is the reason that the once-vilified egg—a low-calorie, protein-packed food that is high in cholesterol but low in saturated fat—has found a place back in a balanced diet. So, what should one eat to manage cholesterol?
Cutting back on red meat high in saturated fat as well as sugar can go a long way in improving cholesterol levels. The American Heart Association instead recommends focusing on foods low in saturated and trans fats like fruits and vegetables; whole grains, lean meats; fatty fish; unsalted nuts, seeds, and legumes; and vegetable oils like canola oil and olive oil.
On the flip side, the associate recommends limiting the intake of foods that are high in sodium, sweets and sugary drinks, red meat, processed meat, full-fat dairy products, baked goods packed with saturated fat (like donuts), foods that have hydrogenated oils as part of their ingredients list, saturated oils, solid fats like shortening and margarine, and fried foods.
Since the way food is prepared and cooked is also an important factor on their overall healthiness, the association likewise has guidelines, recommending cooking methods like baking, grilling, and broiling over frying.
If you can’t give up red meat, the American Heart Association suggests ways to reduce the saturated fat content:
- Select lean cuts with minimal visible fat and trim all visible fat before cooking.
- Broil instead of pan-frying.
- Drain any excess fat after cooking.
- Cook a day ahead of time. Refrigerate those with a liquid component then remove hardened fat before eating.
- Remove skin from poultry to make it an even healthier choice.
- Avoid processed meats like hot dogs. These are high in saturated fat, sodium, and calories. Some studies suggest that consuming these may increase your risk for cancer.
In short, choose nutrient-dense foods and eat them as close as possible to their natural state to help increase HDL cholesterol, lower LDL cholesterol, and improve heart health as well as overall health.