Know Your Cholesterol: The Good & The Bad

Even though cholesterol is a hot topic of conversation, it is still a confusing one. There are many aspects to this tiny molecule, most of which are vital for our existence. So how do we know what is good cholesterol and what is bad cholesterol?

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

Is cholesterol bad for your heart?

Contrary to popular belief all cholesterol has an important purpose. Firstly, it is one of the main building blocks of cell membranes. HDL (high density lipoprotein) and LDL (low density lipoprotein) are a combination of protein and fat particles. They are in charge of chauffeuring cholesterol to its various workstations. On arrival it carries out important tasks such as synthesizing vitamin D, steroid hormones and bile. The cells in our body make approximately 75% of our cholesterol, while only 25% comes from food. The problem comes in when cholesterol begins to clog up the arteries, but why does this happen?

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LDL Cholesterol (large particles)

Once called bad cholesterol, LDL has an essential role in the body. It starts off as big fat juicy particles filled with triglycerides (fatty energy). LDL’s are sent out by the liver and gut to nourish the organs, muscles and the brain. They deliver triglycerides to muscles for nourishment and drop cholesterol at the glands where it is synthesized into steroid hormones. The LDL particles then collect 80% of the used cholesterol and drop it back to the liver for recycling. All good.

HDL Cholesterol (small particles)

Once called the good cholesterol, HDL particles have the important job of protecting LDL particles from oxidation. They are certainly good at removing cholesterol, phospholipids, and triglycerides from arterial walls and from tissue. They then hand their packages over to the homeward bound LDL particles or take them directly to the liver themselves. Other HDL particles ease inflammation in the arterial walls and help prevent blood clots from forming inside the arteries. All in all both HDL and LDL are clearly good. So what can go wrong?


Today inflammation is considered the foundation of lifestyle diseases. These include atherosclerosis, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease and neurological disorders. Inflammation occurs when the body detects dangerous particles. To fight off the toxic presence, the body floods surrounding tissue with extra blood and immune cells. When this inflammatory response is sustained for a prolonged period of time the inflamed tissue becomes damaged. The body then sends in cholesterol to protect the damaged tissue.

In December 2009, the study Inflammation in Atherosclerosis was published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology. Researchers demonstrated that the plaque on the walls of arteries (atherosclerosis) was in fact a ‘plaster’ protecting the arteries from inflammatory damage. In the article Atherosclerosis – An Inflammatory Disease, Russell Ross PhD explains the nature of atherosclerosis. Inflammation is stimulated by the presence of necrotic cell debris, toxins, elevated homocysteine, viruses, bacteria’s and free radicals. LDL’s are then encouraged to penetrate and deliver cholesterol on to the arterial walls. When LDL particles become trapped in an artery, they can undergo progressive oxidation. This in turn triggers a vicious cycle of inflammation and modification of lipoproteins. To prevent this downward spiral on needs to address the original cause of inflammation.

Dietary Cholesterol

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For many years westerners were told that dietary cholesterol should be limited. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has recently updated its view following the resent publication in the British Medical Journal Openheart February 2015, which showed there is no substantial relationship between the consumption of dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol levels. As such, the UK and the USA dietary report eliminated this restriction by concluding, “Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” However, this does not mean it is healthy to go and chow down on pizzas’, cheeseburgers and fried chicken.

Cholesterol is only found in animal products and is mainly esterified, which means the body doesn’t absorb it well. The better our liver function and enzyme production, the easiest it is to break it down. However this is not a problem because the body tightly regulates production. The more we absorb, the less we make and vice versa. This doesn’t mean that everyone now has a free pass to devour animal products. We all have genes that regulate our fat metabolism and some of us have a genetic predisposition (SNP) in the genes. LPL, CETP, APOC3 or APOE are all genes that are involved in processing cholesterol. If yours are not that active you will be sensitive to the negative effects of animal products.

Good Cholesterol versus Trans Fats

Whole food fats and oils may not activate inflammation, but trans fats certainly do. All hydrogenated oil like margarine, commercial salad dressings, mayonnaise and vegetable oil are an arterial nightmare. In fact for the last 50 years butter was named as harmful and margarine was punted as the healthy choice. When in fact the story was the other way around. Trans fats have in fact been found to cause inflammation and atherosclerosis. It is a good time to keep things simple and go back to basics. Butter is in fact good cholesterol!

If you are concerned about your cholesterol it’s important to work with a well-informed integrative or functional medicine doctor that can test your DNA and can suggest healthy food and supplement regimes.

But now you know the good, the bad and the ugly sides of cholesterol. In the end healthy eating choices are key in keeping your cholesterol from turning ugly.

For healthy recipes, keep an eye out for Barefoot in the Kitchen. Longevity healthy cooking video series.