It is quite common these days to see ‘worry levels’ go up after routine blood tests and medical check-ups that reveal a “cholesterol problem”. This revelation is often followed by the advice to cut down on all fat in your diet- oil, ghee and butter, all of which are integral to our Indian diet- or risk a heart attack. Unsurprisingly, cholesterol has become a term that induces fear and paranoia, leading people to make drastic and unnecessary changes to their diet.
The fact is that this fear is unfounded as there is growing evidence that cholesterol is not the cause for atherosclerosis (formation of plaque along the arteries), heart attacks and strokes. Part of this paranoia is due to a misunderstanding between correlation and causation: just because many heart patients have higher levels of cholesterol does not mean that their heart disease was caused by the presence of cholesterol.
Therefore, it is important to get a better understanding of cholesterol and its functions in our body, before we consider dietary implications.
Why cholesterol is essential for our body
Contrary to the common mis-perception, cholesterol is an alcohol- and not a fat- that is produced by most cells of our body and the liver. It contributes immensely to the proper functioning of several parts of the human body, often playing a ‘protective’ role.
-Several important hormones including estrogen and testosterone are produced from cholesterol. Similarly, it is integral to the production of hormones that protect our immune system and the creation of vital neurotransmitters that affect our brain and nervous system. The production of Vitamin D- which is known to have a bearing on our mental state/ mood, bone density, weight loss efforts- also requires cholesterol.
-Cholesterol also aids in the repair of blood vessels and membranes and demonstrates anti-oxidant properties protecting cells and tissues from free radical damage.
-Likewise, the proper functioning of our digestive system and maintenance of the intestinal wall is also dependent on cholesterol. This is because it is essential for the creation of bile salts that are required for the proper breakdown of nutrient components namely carbs, proteins and fats.
-Perhaps the greatest acknowledgement of the vital role of cholesterol is the fact that mother’s breast milk has 60% cholesterol. We all know the priceless nature of “maa ka doodh” in the healthy development of a child.
HDLs, LDLs and the talk about good and bad cholesterol
Before we get too carried away by the technicalities of HDL and LDL, let us understand that both of these are important in either the transportation of cholesterol or the repair and damage control of cells and tissues. The “good cholesterol” (HDL) acts mainly as the cholesterol recycling system, transporting it to and from the liver, while the LDLs (“bad cholesterol”) are involved greatly in the repair and protective functions.
What is most important to remember is that the only real “bad cholesterol” is the oxidised cholesterol. Processed foods, packaged fats and refined, hydrogenated oils are among the main sources of such oxidised and rancid fats and cholesterol, which can contribute to the creation of plaque in the arteries and cause blockages.
Lessons from traditional diets: the problem is with “processed” and “refined”
A review of the traditional diets of some of the high-longevity societies in the world (mainly Europe) contradicts this myth about heart disease caused by high quantity of fats or cholesterol in the diet. For example, the French, Greeks, Austrians and Swiss people consume some of the fattiest diets in the world but their lifespans are also among the longest. Heart disease statistics from some of these countries are also significantly lower than, say, in the United States (in some cases, 50-70% lower!). This is because, unlike American diets, the fat consumed is mainly from farm-fresh, unprocessed food.
Several other instances galore, ranging from the diet followed by the Masai warrior tribe of Africa – where the animal fat intake is almost 5 times than that of an Average American- to those in the Mediterranean region, whose diets comprise almost 70% of saturated fats. In sharp contrast to what we are conditioned to accept, instances of heart diseases in these regions are much lower than what is seen in countries adopting and practising western diets.
Because of native cultures making a transition to more western diets of processed, refined and hydrogenated fats, the Japanese, who historically had the highest longevity, are now beginning to be more vulnerable to heart attacks and strokes. And is it not true that until few decades back when we followed timeless food wisdom passed on to us from our ancestors, we as a nation, lived healthier lives with a better sense of well-being?
Modern science is now in sync with traditional wisdom-
After more than 50 years of advice to avoid cholesterol foods, the current scientific thinking on cholesterol is that there is NO linkage between dietary fat/cholesterol and cholesterol in the blood and consequent heart diseases. “Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption,” the 2015-2020 US Dietary guideline now reads.
Tips to handle this cholesterol “problem”
A common question we get in our diet consultation is how to keep cholesterol at bay. It’s quite simple really:
¬ Keep faith in your traditional diet
Let us take a leaf out of the culinary habits of the French and the Swiss and rely more on our own native, traditional food wisdom. Rely on time tested advice and eat wholesome that your great grand mom recognizes as food.
¬ Cut down on processed foods
Instead of worrying on the potential effects of eggs, makhan and ghee, focus on cutting out processed and refined food items from your diet. Both butter and ghee have numerous benefits, as highlighted in our previous blogs. So ditch the cookies, biscuits, chips, muffins and start putting ghee back on your rotis and dal.
¬ Engage in regular physical activity
As we have continuously advocated, regular physical exercise is a must to keep various ailments at bay- including diabetes and heart disease. Make sure that you give up a sedentary lifestyle and keep moving. Adequate movement itself will go a long way in keeping your heart healthy.
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Confused by the misinformation about potential health problems with traditional Indian foods? Get in touch with well-known Mumbai dietitian and nutritionist, Munmun Ganeriwal, a strong advocate of the holistic, wellness benefits of fresh, local, and traditional Indian foods.