Cholesterol: Enemy #1 … or #1 Friend? – Part 2

This month, we’re talking about cholesterol and its many roles in the body. For better or worse, we need cholesterol for a variety of critical functions as discussed in my last post.

For example, your body uses cholesterol to build new, healthy tissue to heal external injuries on your skin or internal injuries in your blood vessels, organs and more. The cholesterol is transported in your blood to the various sites of injury by a lipoprotein called LDL. If you’re thinking “Huh? I thought LDL was bad?!” you’re not alone. Despite its usefulness in getting cholesterol and other lipids from the liver to cells, LDL gets a bad wrap from doctors and public health campaigns!

LDL is a particle made up of proteins and fats. Normally, LDL takes on a beneficial role in the body such as transporting cholesterol. It’s when LDL becomes oxidized that things can go awry. More specifically, immune cells see oxidized LDL or Ox-LDL as similar to a damaging toxin. The body sends out special cells to gobble up the Ox-LDL so it can’t cause long-term damage to tissues. When Ox-LDL is carrying cholesterol to heal injured blood vessels, the problems begin as we learned before.

That’s why it’s important to take actionable steps to lower the levels of oxidized LDL in your blood—keeping it in check will lower your risk of hypertension, atherosclerosis and heart disease.

So how does LDL become oxidized? “The oxidation of LDL is a complex process during which both the protein and the lipids undergo oxidative changes and form complex products.4” This scientific mouthful essentially means that when a lipoprotein is oxidized, it’s chemically modified into a new substance, Ox-LDL, that contains inflammatory and toxic components.

There are many ways that LDL can become oxidized but we’re focusing on two paths of oxidation that you have complete control over. Note: You may not like the news, but don’t shoot the messenger!

Fat, a core component of a lipoprotein, becomes oxidized when it’s cooked at super high temperatures—think food fried in oil like chips, French fries, fried chicken, etc.

Fat also becomes oxidized when it’s overexposed to oxygen. This can happen when oil is not sealed, but instead left open on the counter. Actually, some fats are more prone to oxidation, particularly polyunsaturated fats such as peanut oil, soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, among others. Consuming these oils in small doses is fine, but most packaged foods and restaurant meals are cooked in them. They’re less stable and can quickly become oxidized, leading to high levels of Ox-LDL in the blood.

So, what can you do to lower oxidized LDL in your blood?

Choose one of these simple ideas to adopt ASAP:

  • Swap your regular cooking oil (likely polyunsaturated) for olive oil, a more stable monounsaturated oil
  • Buy coconut oil, avocado oil or grass-fed butter (all healthy saturated fats) for cooking at high heats
  • Check the label on your favorite packaged food; if it contains polyunsaturated oil, find a healthier alternative
  • Try making baked fries at home to avoid the French fry craving
  • If fried foods are your favorite, start searching for an easy, delicious alternative. For example, grilled calamari is even better than fried! Juicy, roasted chicken thighs top fried chicken any day.
  • Increase your antioxidant intake from plant-based foods to neutralize oxidized fats

In the next blog post we’ll explore how to reduce blood vessel injury so cholesterol doesn’t wreak havoc in your body, as well as which blood tests you’re missing for a real understanding of cholesterol health.

Sources:
Gropper, S., & Smith, J. (2012). Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. Cengage Learning.

Parthasarathy, S., Raghavamenon, A., Garelnabi, M. O., & Santanam, N. (2010). Oxidized Low-Density Lipoprotein. Methods in Molecular Biology (Clifton, N.j.),610, 403–417. doi:10.1007/978-1-60327-029-8_24