Cholesterol and Diet

by Mark Whalen

In part I of this series, we talked about how dietary cholesterol (ie cholesterol you eat) does virtually nothing to raise cholesterol in about 70% of the population. The idea that dietary cholesterol is a risk for heart disease can be put to rest.  Today we are going to cover the link between cholesterol and diet and investigate what does increase your cholesterol and your risk for heart disease.

There are two major dietary demons to watch out for.

Sugar 1

One of the major factors driving up cholesterol from our diets is sugar. Consumption of sugar causes an increase in the hormone insulin. It’s not only straight sugar, but also quickly digested carbohydrates from processed foods that can cause a quick increase in insulin levels.

Insulin is responsible for taking glucose (sugar) out of the blood. Excess insulin – that which can’t be stored in muscles or used right away, gets stored as fat. For those with insulin resistance the excess insulin can’t be used effectively and that’s where the trouble begins.

Excess insulin has many deleterious effects on cholesterol and heart health:

  • Increases triglycerides
  • Increases the activation of HMG CO-A Reductase- the major control point for cholesterol synthesis. Ie, increased insulin=increased cholesterol production
  • Makes the kidneys hold on to salt and raises Blood Pressure
  • Lowers HDL
  • Excess sugar sticks to proteins and creates a process called Glycation. This glycation leads to the formation of Advanced Glycation End Products (AGE’s). AGE’s are a major risk factor for heart disease.

Polyunsaturated Fats

Quick LDL review.  In Part I we learned that there are two patterns of LDL. Pattern A LDL is similar to big, fluffy, clouds and poses no danger. Even Pattern B LDL, the small dense kind, doesn’t pose a danger until it becomes oxidized. (If you’ve seen rust on metal, you’ve seen oxidation in action)

Why is Oxidation so dangerous to us? Oxidized LDL sticks to the walls of the arteries, enters into the endothelium (lining the arteries) and starts the inflammatory process. More specifically, once LDL becomes oxidized it causes Macrophages, a normal part of the immune response, to transform into foam cells, which become a major component of atherosclerosis.

The main dietary culprit leading to oxidation is Polyunsaturated Fats. Polyunsaturated Fats are chemically unstable and prone to oxidation, unlike Saturated Fats, which are chemically stable.

The main polyunsaturated fat responsible for oxidizing LDL is Linoleic acid, an Omega 6 Fatty Acid found in vegetable oils. Yup, the same oils we’re led to believe are healthy and good for our hearts2.

Examples of vegetable oils include:

Canola Oil

Soybean Oil

Corn Oil

Peanut Oil

Cottonseed oil

Sunflower Oil

Safflower Oil

Margarine and shortening are also high in Linoleic acid.

The Omega 6 fatty acids are also responsible for creating an inflammatory environment in our bodies. Chronic inflammation is a precursor to a host of diseases. This is why Omega 3 fatty acids are so vital. A healthy Omega 6: Omega 3 ratio is 1:1. Most Americans run in the range of 4 or 5(omega 6) to 1 (omega 3). We’re setting ourselves up for a pro inflammatory state.

In it’s ongoing effort to protect us, our body has mechanisms in place to try and prevent this oxidation from happening. Two antioxidants, Vitamin E and Co-enzyme Q10 (CO Q10) are packaged with LDL in the liver. Their job is to prevent the oxidation of LDL.

Statin drugs, the main drugs used to lower cholesterol, inhibit the production of cholesterol in the body by limiting Mevalonate. Mevalonate not only synthesizes cholesterol but also CO Q103.

Did you follow that? The main drug to lower cholesterol blocks the production of a key antioxidant that is used to protect LDL from being oxidized. Not only that, but CO Q10 must be available for Vitamin E to act as an antioxidant. So stains directly and indirectly negatively effect both of the antioxidants used to keep LDL from oxidizing.  Nice.

The best way to protect ourselves is to avoid the foods that can raise cholesterol and increase our risk for heart disease, and add in the foods that reduce these risks.

Foods to avoid/minimize


Vegetable Oils /Margarine

Processed Food

Deli Meats

Trans Fats

Other risks for Oxidation include Smoking, Stress, Alcohol, excess sun exposure, exposure to toxic pollutants/chemicals.

Foods to Add

To protect yourself from the dangers of oxidation, increase your intake of fresh, whole foods.   Vegetables and Fruits are the best source of antioxidants in the diet. Eat a wide variety of colors to ensure a better mix of antioxidants.

Coffee can also be a good source of antioxidants, as long as you don’t fill it with sugar or artificial creamers/sweeteners.

A small amount of dark chocolate is also beneficial. Aim for a source that is over 70% cacao.  The higher the cacao number, the more bitter the chocolate, the less likely it is to make you crave sweets again.  The sugar impact of a small piece of dark chocolate a few times a week is minimal.

I hope this brief overview into a complex topic has been helpful.

 Disclaimer:This article is for informational purposes only.   It is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease or illness. This article is not a substitute for medical advice. Do not stop taking any medications without first speaking with your doctor.
1. The Great Cholesterol Myth.  Bowden, Jonny and Sinatra, Stephen
2. Stephen Guyenet.
3. Chris Masterjohn.

Mark Whalen is a Licensed Acupuncturist and Board Certified Herbalist and the founder of Five Points Acupuncture & Wellness in Reading, MA.

Mark Whalen – who has written posts on Acupuncture Reading MA - Five Points Acupuncture & Wellness.


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