How To Improve Your Cholesterol Levels

As promised, this week I’ll give you a few easy tips to improve your cholesterol levels. Before I start though, I want to remind everyone that “improving” cholesterol levels does not necessarily mean lowering them.

If you remember my post about cholesterol, you’ll remember that the body creates and uses LDL as a temporary bandage that, once the threat to the body is resolved, HDL will transport back to the liver to be excreted. It is only when inflammation persists in the body that LDL becomes oxidized, hardening and risking blockages in the arteries.

In fact, low total cholesterol levels in the body have been linked to shorter lifespan! Therefore, for this post, we’ll talk about how to adjust your cholesterol levels to the optimal zone…as opposed to the range statin companies usually promote.

First off, the easiest number to alter is your HDL. This is what carries cholesterol back to the liver after it has served its purpose.

The best way to boost your HDL is to consume more monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil and avocado. Consuming these in a raw form, as opposed to cooking them, will be more beneficial. Also, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) found almost exclusively in grass-fed beef and dairy, will help raise HDL.

In addition, weight training and moderate aerobic activity are shown to increase HDL.

Now, on to LDL. To reiterate, high LDL is not necessarily a bad or dangerous thing. However, LDL can become oxidized in the blood so I understand why people may want to lower their LDL numbers.

To lower LDL, be careful when consuming other saturated fats. Saturated fat is actually the safest to consume, and most stable source of energy for the body, but make sure you’re consuming it from natural sources. This would include coconut products (again, with minimal processing), grass-fed beef, and other humanely raised animals fed a natural diet, with plenty of space to roam and forage.

Exercise may also help control LDL levels since low-level aerobics will improve the body’s ability to metabolize fats for energy.

Finally, the only truly problematic form of cholesterol found in the body is triglycerides. Anytime you see claims that cholesterol in the blood is dangerous, I will guarantee the samples were people with extremely elevated levels of triglycerides and low HDL.

The best way to decrease your triglyceride count would be to avoid processed or heated polyunsaturated fats which are highly unstable and prone to oxidization.

I’m not saying to fear nuts and seeds and every food containing high amounts of omega-6 (the primary inflammatory constituent of poly-fats). Just avoid foods that are high in this AND have been processed or altered. Examples of foods to avoid would be corn oil, soybean oil, and other vegetable oils.

Finally, limit your sugar and refined carb intake. Again, no need to fear fruits, sweet potatoes or other whole foods; instead, skip the center aisles of the market made up of processed and packaged food.

Please keep in mind that all my suggestions of what to eat more or less of are based on the assumption that we already know things like candy, chips, ice cream, and soda are unhealthy. Fortunately, our health and nutrition systems have not yet become so infiltrated by major corporations that McDonalds and pizza is labeled as healthy.

Nonetheless, as exemplified by my own past food choices, there is still a great deal of confusion regarding what is optimal for our bodies. Just last month Mazola ran a massive marketing campaign (and must have spent billions of dollars) to convince researchers and doctors to claim that corn oil is “safer for the heart” than extra virgin olive oil!

And with that, we should all have a decent level of knowledge regarding what to consume and not consume to maintain the most beneficial cholesterol levels in our bodies.

Hope it helps!

Chocolate!

Due to the positive feedback from last week’s post discussing coffee consumption, this week I’ll do a similar analysis of another dark and flavorful food – chocolate!

Chocolate, as we know it, is much different than the cocoa bean that grows in nature. The beans are roasted, de-shelled, and ground into a paste. From there, sugar, cocoa butter, and emulsifiers (usually soy lecithin) are added. Finally, it is refined, treated with an alkalizing agent to reduce the acidity, and often combined with dairy.

The darker the chocolate you consume, the less inputs are added. For the sake of discussion, let’s look at the health benefits of 100% raw cocoa:

  • It has more antioxidants, particularly flavonoids, than any other substance. These help the body maintain healthy cardiovascular function by improving endothelial function, blood lipid levels, blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity.
  • It is predominately saturated and monounsaturated fat, the safest and most stable forms of fuel for the body.
  • One ounce (less than a single square from a bar) fulfills the listed percent of recommended daily values for the following minerals:
    • 50% Copper and Manganese
    • 35% Magnesium
    • 25% Iron and Phosphorus
    • 15% Potassium and Zinc

These are minerals that most people are deficient in…particularly when you consider the anti-nutrient content, and resulting absorption issues, of the foods they are predominately found in (nuts, seeds, and grains).

I would list the following facts as downsides of cocoa:

  • One ounce contains 65mg of caffeine (not nearly as much as coffee but on par with black tea).
  • One ounce also contains 200-500mg of theobromine – another stimulant that takes the body longer to process than caffeine.
  • As mentioned above, it is usually processed with sugar, dairy, and soy.

Again, all these facts are for 100% raw cocoa, often sold in the baking aisle of grocery stores as baking chocolate. In this form, it is very bitter and difficult to over consume.

I’d recommend buying the darkest chocolate you can still enjoy. Most people can find a 75%-85% dark chocolate bar that they like…just experiment with different brands!

I personally buy 100% raw cocoa and melt it into smoothies or shave it on top of yogurt and homemade ice cream. When mixed with other foods, particularly sweeter foods, I find the bitterness of the 100% dark to be perfect.

I use 1-2 ounces (one square from a full bar) on each day of the weekend. I personally would not want to consume cocoa on a daily basis due to the stimulant properties. However, if you are consuming 85% or darker cocoa, there is no reason not to enjoy one square a day (just try to eat it earlier in the day due to the stimulant properties). Be on the lookout for bars loaded with sugar, milk, or other inputs that could lead to over consumption.

One separate matter worth mentioning, that I unfortunately did not touch upon in my last post, is the environmental and humanity issues involved in the production of cocoa. Very often, child slaves and impoverished farmers are subject to terrible treatment. Also, deforestation is a major concern when growing and harvesting cocoa beans.

Try to find cocoa that is certified Fairtrade. This implies that a certification body has approved the environmental, labor, and developmental standards involved in the production of a food. Like many other bureaucratic systems however, this certification is far from perfect and does not guarantee fair treatment of every person involved in the cocoa trade.

In closing, I would like to reiterate: check the list of ingredients on the back of whatever you buy. Find a product with the shortest list that does not contain any ingredients you could not find in nature. And also, consume in moderation. Just because a food has more benefits than detriments, doesn’t mean more is better.

Enjoy!

Fats

My last post touched upon the 3 macronutrient groups – fat, protein, and carbohydrates. This post will cover fats, the most misunderstood macronutrient.

The major confusion regarding fat stems from the word itself. There are fats you eat (dietary fat) and there is body fat (adipose tissue). Consumption of dietary fat does not directly increase body fat but, since both phrases contain the word fat, people worry that one affects the other.

Fats are found frequently in nature. They are in animals and fish, nuts and seeds, fruits such as avocados and coconuts, and oils.

One thing worth mentioning is that fat is more calorically dense than carbs or proteins. Fats have 9 calories per gram while the latter only have 4. This is great if you only have time for two or three meals a day and want to keep your energy steady, but, calories in versus calories out will affect body weight.

As mentioned in the last post, fat is essential for life. It is necessary to assimilate vitamins A, D, E, and K. It is one of only two fuels that power the body efficiently. Fats are used for the construction and maintenance of cells within our bodies.

Let’s look at the different forms of fat to understand where the beneficial features lie and where the fearful stigma may come from.

*              *              *              *              *

First, a quick chemistry note: fats are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms bonded together.

Saturated fats are named because every carbon atom is “saturated” with hydrogen; there are no double bonds. This makes them very stable, meaning they are the safest for cooking and the least likely to oxidize. Another interesting fact is that they make up half of our cell membrane structure.

These are found predominately in animal and fish products but are also in coconut and palm oil.

Monounsaturated fats contain one double bond between two carbon atoms meaning they are fairly stable but still subject to oxidization.  Maybe you’ve noticed when cooking with olive oil, if you turn your back for a moment, it will start to smoke. Similarly, if you leave a cut avocado out, it will start to turn brown. If consumed in a raw form, in a timely fashion, these can improve cholesterol levels within the body.

These fats occur in plant foods such as avocados, nuts, and olive oil.

Polyunsaturated fats contain two or more double bonds meaning they are unstable and prone to oxidization and rancidity. It’s not a great idea to overheat or overfill our bodies with such an unstable substance. It’s not a particular macronutrient group but rather the process of oxidization that really damages our bodies.

So, eliminate all polyunsaturated fat, right? Again, when it comes nutrition and the human body, things just can’t be that simple.

Remember those essential fats I mentioned last time…Omega-3 in particular? That’s a polyunsaturated fat! The key is to balance your sources of polyunsaturated fat intake.

O-3 is essential for life so incorporate wild-caught seafood into your diet (algae and flax can be used by vegans but keep in mind that the type of O-3 provided by these plants sources, ALA, is only converted at around 6% to EPA and 0.5% to DHA, which are the forms our body needs).

Another polyunsaturated fat, Omega-6, is also essential but it is found abundantly in nuts, grains, soy, and oils (and any animals fed these foods too). O-6 is so prevalent the average American consumes 20 times more O-6 than O-3. This is problematic because, being an easily oxidized poly fat, the body can quickly accumulate too much O-6 leading to inflammation and increasing risks of cardiovascular disease. An optimal ratio for O-6 to O-3 would be 2 to 1.

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at two healthy foods – salmon and almonds. One ounce of salmon has 550mg O-3 while the almonds have 3500mg O-6. When I have almonds, I can eat 4 handfuls (one handful is about one ounce) before I even pour them into a bowl and sit down. This means, just in that one day, if I consumed nothing else containing O-6 (nearly impossible), I’d have to eat close to a pound of salmon.

I’m not recommending you count every milligram…just increase intake of certain foods (wild-caught fish or grass-fed beef), consume some in moderation (nuts, oils, avocados), and avoid others altogether (soy, corn, and other modern vegetable oils).

Trans fats are the most dangerous type of fat. These are formed through chemical modification and are unrecognizable to the human body. They will inevitably be stored as abdominal fat or fat around the internal organs (the deadliest form of fat in the body).

These fats are found in processed oils, butter-replacements, and other packaged goods. Basically, if the word “hydrogenated” is anywhere on the package, do not consume it under risk of death!

*              *              *              *              *

I know that was a lot of information but, the point is, dietary fat is a necessary part of a healthy diet. Certain fats (poly fat O-6 and trans fat) may not be as optimal as others (saturated and mono), but, if it’s naturally occurring in nature, it is not inherently bad for you.

Now, let’s examine goals and activity levels to determine how much fat to consume.

If weight loss is the goal, higher fat and lower carb may be beneficial because fat is very satiating while carbs wreak havoc on blood sugar and leptin signaling (both tell us when we are full). Also, fats would be a wiser choice for those trying to reverse or prevent certain diseases or illnesses (I’ll talk about this more in the post about carbohydrates).

When the heart is working below 75% of its maximum, the body is using fat as its primary fuel. As the heart rate decreases to a resting rate, the body will naturally use 95% fats and 5% carbs as energy. So, if you work a desk job and don’t engage in intense physical activity daily, your body will naturally run leaner with adequate fat and lower carb intake.

To use myself as an example…on the days I lift heavy and want to gain muscle, I eat about 40% carbs, 30% fats, and 30% protein. On my recovery days, when the most I do is slow, steady walking, I eat about 60% fat, 10% carbs, and 30% protein. My carbs on lifting days come from raw goat’s milk, white and sweet potatoes, and fruit. On my recovery days, I’ll have a cup of milk and a banana in the morning and the rest of my meals will consist of fibrous carbs like vegetables. I tend to keep protein high on most days due to my strength focus in the gym…but the story of protein is best saved for the next post…

Hopefully this provides a basic understanding of the importance of fats. In future posts I’ll refer back to certain things I’ve discussed here and offer practical solutions to specific health and performance goals. See you all next week when we cover proteins – the building blocks of the human body!