While out shopping on a recent day, I met a young mother in the cooking oil aisle with her 2-year old son. She picked up a bottle that had the words “cholesterol-free” on it.
She reasoned that since it was cholesterol-free, she could use it for deep-frying. This was particularly important to her as there was a history of high cholesterol in her family.
When I explained to her why buying that oil didn’t really protect her family, her face fell. “How can they write cholesterol-free on the bottle then?” she bellowed. “It’s so misleading!” Here’s what I told her:
What most people don’t realize is that the amount of cholesterol in food is insignificant compared with the amount of cholesterol that is already in our bodies. Eighty percent of our body’s cholesterol is manufactured by our liver (blood cholesterol), and only 20 percent comes from food (dietary cholesterol).
Foods like eggs and prawns contain cholesterol, but the cholesterol we eat in foods is digested and doesn’t affect the level of cholesterol in our blood. In fact, the majority of studies conducted over the past two decades on cholesterol-rich foods have shown that dietary cholesterol only has a weak link, at best, to blood cholesterol levels (The World Health Organisation has actually stated that most people can eat 10 eggs a week.) It is actually saturated fat and trans-fat in the diet, not dietary cholesterol, that influence blood cholesterol levels the most.
And this is why the words “cholesterol-free” on that oil is so misleading. Yes, the oil is cholesterol-free, but then so are apples and oats. Even crisps and mandazis are cholesterol-free! Simply put, these two words don’t mean a thing.
So instead, look for the level of saturated or trans-fats. These are the things that do raise blood cholesterol (it does this by stimulating your liver to up its normal cholesterol-producing function). Foods rich in saturated fat include fatty cuts of meat and full fat dairy produce.
The other baddie, trans-fat, is found in foods that contain liquid fats that have been made solid by a process called hydrogenation (that’s why they’re also called hydrogenated fats). Think of the difference between liquid oil and stick margarine: By making something that was meant to be a liquid into a solid, the margarine contains hydrogenated and trans-fats. In addition to margarine, products that fall into this category include biscuits, many baked goods and snacks.
Trans-fats also occur when any unsaturated fat is heated for a long period, e.g. sunflower oil used in deep frying. A small bag of crisps has been found to contain more than a whopping 25 percent of its fats as trans-fat. Less than 1 percent is preferable. Deep-fried food, e.g. fried chicken, chips and battered fish, are all rich in these damaging oils, in many cases containing around 8 grams of trans-fat. A doughnut may contain twice as much!
So the next time you’re out shopping for your family and you see a food labelled as cholesterol-free, ask yourself: Do those two words really mean a thing?
What’s your number?
It seems that everyone who comes to see me at the clinic these days knows what their cholesterol level is. Most are freaking out, worried that they’re going to spend a lifetime on medication. They needn’t be. Granted, your overall cholesterol should be less than 5.5 mmol/l, but it really is just a number, and there’s plenty you can do bring it down:
1) Eat better: Avoid saturated and trans-fats by steering clear of fatty cuts of meat and full fat dairy (saturated fat), and foods where liquid fats that have been made solid (trans-fats). The latter are found in fried food or margarines, biscuits, and many baked goods and snacks.
2) Add soluble fibre. It acts like a sponge and carries saturated and trans-fats away. Whole grains, beans, pulses and oats are all rich sources.
3) Lose weight: Yes, that tyre around your waist is likely to increase your cholesterol levels. So shed a few pounds. That lowers your bad cholesterol and raises your good cholesterol levels.
4) Exercise: Ideally, you want to be physically active for 30 minutes on most days.
5) Quit smoking: Regular smoking pushes up "bad" cholesterol
6) De-stress: The stress hormone adrenaline raises cholesterol, so it’s worth finding ways to unwind and relax.