When people hear the word cholesterol they almost always associate it with some kind of health problem. In fact, cholesterol is indispensable for your organism. Problems only arise when you absorb too much.

Some foods like egg yolks, sweetbreads, brains, processed meats and butter, contain more cholesterol than others. A lack of cholesterol is usually an indication of a nutritional deficiency, while too much cholesterol can cause serious health problems.

Cholesterol is indispensable for the proper functioning of cell membranes, and no other substance can replace it. Only an excess of LDL (low density) cholesterol is harmful. HDL (high density) cholesterol is beneficial, protecting cells and tissues.

Epidemiological studies of large populations over a period of years has shown that a 1 % reduction of harmful cholesterol levels results in a 2% reduction in the risk of heart disease over a period of seven years. If the reduction of harmful cholesterol is combined with a 0.01% increase of beneficial cholesterol, the risk of heart disease drops by 4%.

When too much harmful cholesterol is present in your system, deposits form on artery walls, causing blockages that impede, and eventually stop circulation.

If you have a high cholesterol level, making certain changes to your diet can be of enormous benefit.

Proof can be found in a study conducted by the World Health Organization, which compared populations in Finland and Japan. Finnish people, whose diet contains lots of cholesterol-rich animal fat, have a very high incidence of heart attack, while Japanese people, who eat very little meat and lots of fish and vegetables, have a very low incidence of heart attack fatalities.

– To prevent cholesterol from building up in arteries reduce your intake from external sources as much as possible. At the same time increase your intake of foods containing beneficial HDL cholesterol, which helps eliminate harmful cholesterol.

– Reducing your cholesterol intake means cutting down on all sources of animal fat:

– fat meat

– the skin of poultry

– sauces made with cream, butter or dripping

– processed meats, liver paste (except for foie gras which contains beneficial poly and monounsaturated fats)

– egg yolk

You can eat any type of lean meat (about 5 ounces or 150 grams per day): skinless chicken, veal and horse meat are all lean.

Most cuts of grilled beef contain about 5% to 10% saturated fat, although some contain even more!

– Eat as much fish as you want (even oily fish like salmon is leaner than meat).

– Eat beans which are high in protien and are almost fat free. They will keep you regular and keep cholesterol and blood sugar down.

Olive oil is very beneficial. People living in Greece, who use olive oil almost exclusively, rarely suffer from atherosclerosis (fatty deposits in arteries). Other recommended oils (about 2 tablespoons a day) include sunflower seed, corn and grape seed.

All these oils are rich in poly or monounsaturated fats. Ideally you should alternate between oils rich in monounsaturated fats (olive oil) and those rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (corn and sunflower seed oil).

Eat as many fruits and vegetables as you like, but only a moderate amount of sugar.

As for cooking, opt for steaming, baking or stir frying. Sauces should be light, thickened with low-fat yogurt or cheese.

The right proportions

According to Marian Apfelbaum, professor of nutrition at the Xavier-Bichat University Hospital Center, your total lipid (fat) intake should represent about 30% of your daily calorie intake. Absorbing more than that makes it all but impossible to reduce levels of harmful cholesterol. Absorbing less may deprive you of beneficial HDL cholesterol.

Try to maintain a balance between three types of fat: one third saturated fats, essentially from animal sources (a single serving of meat or fish and a slice of cheese); one third monounsaturated fat, mainly from olive oil; one third polyunsaturated fat, mainly from vegetal sources.

Your saturated fat intake (animal fat) should represent about 10% of your total calorie intake; polyunsaturated fatty acids (from vegetal sources) should represent another 10%, with the remaining 10% made up of monounsaturated fatty acids (olive oil).

Don’t eat a heavy evening meal. An overly full stomach distends the natural air pocket in your stomach. When you lie down the air is forced upward, putting pressure on the heart and causing pains and palpitations.

Dairy products

Try to limit the amount of fat you absorb from dairy products. Replace whole milk with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, and eat only low-fat white cheese.

Since butter is composed of 50% butter and 50% water, you can continue using butter, as long as you don’t use too much. Stir fry foods without butter if possible, using non-stick pots and pans. Spread only a thin layer of butter on toast or bread, and scrape off any excess.

Steam vegetables instead of cooking them in butter. Once cooked you can season them with a knob of butter or sunflower seed margarine, or a bit of olive oil.

Eat apples

Research has clearly shown that apples really do help lower cholesterol levels. Results of a number of studies on how apples effect the metabolism of fats, conducted at the Angers Biochemical and Medical Laboratory, were recently published at a Paris seminar. Their conclusion: the risk of cardiovascular complications can be significantly reduced by eating apples.

Professor J. L. Jullien claims that, in addition to improving circulation… ‘… eating apples regularly is an excellent dietary measure that helps cure a variety of digestive problems (including both diarrhoea and constipation) and regulates intestinal functions.’

Other anti-cholesterol foods

Like apples, lemons are very rich in pectin, a substance that has a similar effect to medication designed to keep cholesterol in the digestive tube and prevent it from entering the bloodstream.

– Surprisingly, walnuts also have a beneficial effect, helping to reduce levels of harmful cholesterol. A statistical study conducted at Loma Linda University in California confirmed that oleaginous fruits, and especially walnuts, reduce cholesterol levels 12% to 16%, because of their high fibre content.

– Silica, contained in plants with strong stems and firm leaves (horsetail, fruit peel, grain husks, onions, garlic, shallots) helps combat excess cholesterol.

– Large doses of Vitamin B3 help lower cholesterol levels, inhibiting its circulation through the body. Ask your doctor to prescribe a supplement.

– Grapefruit protects your heart from damaging effects of cholerterol with a trio of nutrients: Pectin, Vitamin C and Lycopene.

Elderly persons

Epidemiological studies have revealed a significant link between levels of serous cholesterol and coronary disease. As a preventive measure, elderly persons should reduce their intake of saturated fats and cholesterol-rich foods. But to put this advice into practice effectively, three fundamental principles must be taken into consideration:

Individuals respond differently to dietary changes as far as lowering levels of serous cholesterol is concerned. This is true both of low cholesterol diets, and those that partially replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats.

On average, a low cholesterol diet lowers cholesterol levels by about 10%.

As people get older cholesterol in the blood becomes less and less of a health risk factor. Past the age of 60 it is hardly significant at all. There is no proof as yet that dietary measures can reduce the risk of heart disease in elderly persons.

Aging also produces changes in the metabolism of essential fatty acids. To prevent deficiencies that can cause plaque to build up in arteries, diets should be very diverse, containing:

– linoleic acid (sunflower seed, corn, peanut oil)

– alphalinolenic acid (colza and soybean oil, butter)

– arachidonic acid (red meat, liver, eggs)

– eicosapentanoic acid (oily and lean fish)

The question is whether or not it is a good idea to recommend a restrictive diet, containing little or no saturated fats or cholesterol, to persons over 60. Limiting people’s intake of eggs, dairy products and butter may keep cholesterol levels low, but it also deprives them of important nutrients: proteins, calcium, alphalinolenic and arachidonic acids.

Pregnant women and cholesterol

During the second 3 months of pregnancy, levels of harmful LDL cholesterol start rising, and continue to rise in an almost linear fashion until the month before giving birth. The total increase is between 25% and 50%. Beneficial HDL cholesterol levels remain stable, or drop slightly. In all cases there is an increase in the LDL/HDL ratio: levels of the apoprotein Al, linked to HDL, sees no significant modification, while levels of apoprotein B, linked to LDL, increase. Triglyceride levels also increase dramatically starting in the second 3 months, from 50% to 100%. The increase is steady until pregnancy is brought to term, reaching a level three or four times higher than what it was before pregnancy. It should be noted that this increase is not related to any dietary changes or special foods, occurring in vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Dietary measures are therefore ineffective for preventing increased triglyceride levels.

Interestingly enough, these excess lipids do not seem to harm the vascular system. On the contrary, women who have been pregnant a number of times seem to have stronger vascular systems than others.

Cholesterol and physical exercise

A Swedish team studied physical exercise and its effects on overall cholesterol levels, and levels of HDL cholesterol. They found that athletes who engaged in competitive skiing and trained a lot had significantly higher levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol than skiers who trained very little.

At the same time, physical exercise actually decreased levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol in smokers.