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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.

¬ 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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REFERENCES

1.Low cholesterol levels are worse than high: Dr.Axe

2.Cholesterol might not be a nutrient of concern, Time magazine

3.Cholesterol in diet advice overturned in US, CBC News

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.

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It’s the month of January which means its that time of the year when we are either making resolutions or trying to maintain them. At the end of each year, we make different kinds of resolutions and you will agree that a chunk of these resolutions is about losing weight. And most of us will also agree that by end of January, or early February our resolutions begin to fail. Statistics also show that 95 percent of people who do manage to lose weight regain it –at times more than what they had lost, —just within a few months. So why is it that 95 percent of people fail diets.

Well, I choose to believe the other way round. Its 95 percent of diets that fail people. The problem is in those diets that we often look out for in search of weight loss. So here are my 4 things that you should NOT do to lose weight-

1. Do not follow diets- The problem with diets is that it asks you to eat only one thing or totally avoid some other thing. Once you get on a diet, you start looking at food in isolation vs eating wholesome. For eg: A Keto diet that asks you to eat protein and fats but no carbs i.e. no roti, thepla, rice, bhakri etc. In the science of biochemistry, it is often repeated that “Fats burn in the flame of carbohydrates” which means that fats are burnt or utilised for energy in the presence of carbohydrates. So for fat loss, carbs are extremely important.

Or then there is “Low fat diet” where you are allowed to eat everything but no oil, no ghee. Food is either steamed or sautéed or boiled. But more and more research today is asking us to eat fat to cut fat in the body. So we need to eat fat as well.

Hence, rather than hopping onto a diet, make a pledge today to follow a wholesome meal pattern that not only allows you to eat carbs, proteins, fats but also takes account of real life situations like festivals, travels, everyday stresses, work commitments and so on. Because only then your diet becomes sustainable and you lose weight so that it does not come back.

2. Do not practise inconsistency- While I talk about consistency and its importance with my clients, I always mention one of the quotes by Bruce Lee – “It is not about practising 10,000 kinds of kicks, but it is about that one kick practiced 10,000 times”

We often run from one diet to the other, one exercise to the other, we read about some new superfood, some new workout and we just jump on it, only till the time we discover something new again. Fitness rather is a compounding effect of eating and exercising right every single day. Its an ongoing process and you need to work on it consistently. So instead of trying to know and implement the latest fitness regime your favourite celebrity is following, spend time to find your true calling and stay consistent with your own routine. The best of superfoods and exercise in the world will give zero results if you stay inconsistent.

3. Do not stand on a weighing scale- Firstly, your body weight is not an indicator of your fitness. You may weigh more according to the standard height-weight chart but still be light on your feet, energetic and disease free. I am sure you know someone in your life who may not look skinny or thin, but is super fit, does his or her daily activities at home and workplace effortlessly, is full of enthusiasm and is cheerful, happy and certainly not living on medicines. On the other hand, you also must have come across one such person who is skinny but just had a heart attack. In short, your metabolic health, is NOT a function of your body weight. Just like school report card only reflects number and not overall learning of a student, a weighing scale also only reflects a number and not the overall wellbeing of a person. So instead of obsessing over a number on the scale, focus on getting stronger, fitter and healthier.

4. Do not overlook the importance of sleep- The modern curse of not getting sleep these days has a lot to do with the gadgets you use. That’s right, the light that the screens of your phones and TV in your bedroom emit delays the release of a hormone that induces sleep called melatonin, and increases alertness. Not getting enough sleep impairs metabolism and disrupts hormone levels so much that a study led by scientists at the University of Chicago termed sleep deprivation as “the royal route to obesity”. So switch off all the gadgets at least an hour before you go to sleep or still better, just keep it out of your bedroom.

Make this 2018 a special year where you not only lose weight but also keep it away forever; where you not just lose weight but also get healthier and fitter in the process. Until next time, eat right, exercise smart, move more and sleep well. Have a good day!

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