Monday, February 8, 2010

3. Nutrition Facts - Making Peace with Cholesterol

Cholesterol has a terrible reputation. We’ve all heard just how bad cholesterol is for you. However, cholesterol itself is not the real problem. The problem is how our body handles it. Our bodies have evolved to survive starvation and be prepared to face times of famine. This is why our bodies are so efficient at absorbing most nutrients. Now, going back to cholesterol. Cholesterol is a type of fat that can be found in the membranes of animal cells. This means that all foods of animal origin have cholesterol and all the foods coming from plants do not.

Back when we were cave man, we couldn’t just go to the grocery store and get ground turkey, right? We had to go out and chase a turkey around. And, maybe we wouldn’t see a turkey for months so we wouldn’t get any meat for months. Thus, our body developed this recycling system that would help keep necessary nutrients inside our bodies since these nutrients might not always be readily available. Cholesterol is one of those nutrients that takes advantage of this recycling system because food of animal origin was not always available. Here’s how this recycling works:
  1. You eat a cheeseburger that has lots of cholesterol
  2. The cheeseburger makes it all the way to the intestine
  3. In the intestine, the cholesterol gets absorbed
  4. The absorbed cholesterol is transported to the liver
  5. The liver takes the cholesterol to make several things your body needs like bile juices which are juices that help your body digest all the food we eat
  6. Bile juices containing cholesterol are released into the intestine to digest food
  7. Bile juices (still containing cholesterol) as well as fresh, new cholesterol is absorbed and the cycle starts all over again.
As you can see, cholesterol can rapidly accumulate in our bodies since we don’t excrete any (or almost any) of it. Back in the day, this recycling of cholesterol was not a problem since cholesterol was not as abundant in our diets, but now we consume cholesterol on a daily basis. To make things even more interesting, our body cannot break down cholesterol. Thus, all the extra cholesterol stays in the form of cholesterol usually floating around in our blood. This is when the extra cholesterol becomes dangerous since it can start the plaque-building process in our arteries.

But, what makes cholesterol so important? Why would we want to keep it in our bodies since it is, apparently, really bad for our health? Well, cholesterol is bad only if it starts to accumulate. Inside our bodies, cholesterol is responsible for many important functions like producing several hormones like testosterone. In fact, cholesterol is so important that if your body needs it, it can make it. Similarly, if you get the required cholesterol through your diet, your body will not make any.

Finally, the recommendation is that we should not be having more that 300mg of cholesterol a day - especially when your only having only 1200 calories a day like me. You don't want to be wasting calories on something your body can make.

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