Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fat and Cholesterol

I've been wanting to write this post for months.  After the 60-day challenge last year, I proceeded with my goal to get poked and prodded and squished.  The mammogram results came back great.  My physical and PAP both looked stellar.  (By the way, did you know that even if you've had a hysterectomy, you still need to get PAP tests?)  The bloodwork was a long list of terms and numbers that I don't really understand, but since I was in the "recommended range" for nearly everything, there was no cause for worry.  I was especially happy to see my glucose numbers within the normal category, since diabetes is a hereditary concern for me.

Now, cholesterol.  I'd been wondering how that would play out.  And I've been doing a lot of research on the topic (which is the big reason I've taken so long to sit down and write this post).  I found a very informative article here, at Mark's Daily Apple (and also here and here).  Very educational stuff.

This is what my lipid profile looks like:

Total cholesterol: 191
Triglyceride: 60
HDL cholesterol: 71
non HDL cholesterol: 120
VLDL cholesterol: 12
LDL cholesterol: 108
Total cholesterol to HDL ratio: 2.7

I asked the nurse on the phone what all those cholesterol numbers actually meant, since I had no idea.  She told me all the recommended ranges for each and was very patient while I wrote things down.  Then she told me that my LDL level was above recommended range.  What should I do about that?

"Eat a more healthy diet and exercise more," she replied.

Exercise more?  More?!?  According to my brother, my next goal is to bench press a building.  I honestly don't know very many women (especially my age) who exercise like I do.  And my diet?  How many Americans eat this quality of whole, real food?  Or are this careful about how much sugar they take in?  That's when I went on the hunt for more information about cholesterol and its role.

Just yesterday, I read a very succinct article in Men's Health (What If Bad Fat Is Actually Good For You?, by Nina Teicholz) that pulled together all the things I'd been learning.  I highly recommend it (try to ignore all the ads that are typical of a Mens magazine, though).
Supporters of the diet-heart hypothesis have argued that low-carb diets will increase the risk of heart disease. But published research doesn't show this to be the case. When people on low-carb diets have been compared head-to-head with those on low-fat diets, the low-carb dieters typically scored significantly better on markers of heart disease, including small, dense LDL cholesterol, HDL/LDL ratio, and triglycerides, which are a measure of the amount of fat circulating in your blood.

For example, in a new 12-week study, University of Connecticut scientists placed overweight men and women on either a low-carb or low-fat diet. Those who followed the low-carb diet consumed 36 grams of saturated fat per day (22 percent of total calories), which represented more than three times the amount in the low-fat diet. Yet despite this considerably greater intake of saturated fat, the low-carb dieters reduced both their number of small, dense LDL cholesterol and their HDL/LDL ratio to a greater degree than those who ate a low-fat diet. In addition, triglycerides decreased by 51 percent in the low-carb group--compared with 19 percent in the low-fat group.
So, that speaks to the whole heart-health issue.  Did you know there are different types of LDL cholesterol particles?  Small/dense = bad.  Large/fluffy = harmless.  (Unfortunately, my test results didn't include that information.)  The next couple of paragraphs summarizes much of what I learned in Gary Taubes' book "Why We Get Fat":
According to lead study author Jeff Volek, Ph.D., R.D., two factors influence the amount of fat coursing through your veins. The first, of course, is the amount of fat you eat. But the more important factor is less obvious. Turns out, your body makes fat from carbohydrates. It works like this: The carbs you eat (particularly starches and sugar) are absorbed into your bloodstream as sugar. As your carb intake rises, so does your blood sugar. This causes your body to release the hormone insulin. Insulin's job is to return your blood sugar to normal, but it also signals your body to store fat. As a result, your liver starts converting excess blood sugar to triglycerides, or fat.
All of which helps explain why the low-carb dieters in Volek's study had a greater loss of fat in their blood. Restricting carbs keeps insulin levels low, which lowers your internal production of fat and allows more of the fat you do eat to be burned for energy.
That.  That right there.  Before Paleo, I used to think that a low-carber was losing weight simply because once you cut out an entire nutrient category, naturally you'd be eating less food altogether.  I was mistaken (and thank goodness, because I really like eating). 
Based on the research of Volek and Dr. Krauss, a weight-loss or maintenance diet in which some carbohydrates are replaced with fat -- even if it's saturated -- will reduce markers of heart-disease risk more than if you followed a low-fat, high-carb diet.
I've conquered my previously discouraging battle with being overweight.  It's an ongoing process, but I have the right tools in my belt now.  And based on the research (go educate yourself), I am not worried about my cholesterol numbers.  My heart should last a good long time.  Superman and I are both excited about that.  :)

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