Cholesterol and Health
Cholesterol is the waxy substance found in some fats. The liver makes most of the cholesterol needed by the body. The rest we get from our foods – mainly animal fats. When cholesterol levels are high, excess amounts can be deposited onto the walls of the arteries. Cholesterol combines with other substances to form a harder substance, called plaque. Over time, the plaque can build, narrowing the artery and clogging the flow of blood. In serious cases, blood flow is severely or completely blocked. Areas of the body fed below the point of blockage are deprived of oxygen and die. In the heart, arterial blockages cause a heart attack. In the brain, they lead to a stroke.
Health experts recommend maintaining total blood cholesterol levels of less than 200 mg/dL. Levels of 200-239 mg/dL are borderline high, while 240 mg/dL and over are high. The American Heart Association estimates more than 102 million Americans have elevated total cholesterol levels (above 200). More than 41 million have levels of 240 mg/dL or higher.
Decreasing total cholesterol levels by just ten percent reduces the risk of heart disease by nearly a third. The main way to lower cholesterol levels is through lifestyle modifications - eating a low fat diet, reducing the amount of saturated fat, and getting regular exercise. When lifestyle changes aren’t enough, medications can be used to reduce blood cholesterol levels.
A more recent addition to the cholesterol-lowering armament is the cholesterol-lowering spreads found in the grocery store. The margarines are fortified with plant sterols, substances, which are essential for maintaining plant cell membranes. Sterols are closely related to cholesterol. Humans are unable to absorb plant sterols. In addition, once in the intestinal tract, plant sterols tend to reduce or block the absorption of cholesterol – both from foods and the liver.
Research shows that when used as directed, cholesterol lowering spreads may be able to reduce total blood cholesterol levels by about 10 percent and LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) by 14 percent. Although the reduction seems modest, such a decrease is likely to lower the risk of heart disease by about 25 percent.
To get the most benefit from cholesterol lowering margarines, the products must be used in the recommended amounts. Experts recommend using the spreads in place of butter or margarine (however, keep in mind the “light” versions of the spreads shouldn’t be used in baking). Since the spreads are much more costly than regular margarines or spreads, the expense can add up. The spreads are also no substitute for diet and lifestyle modifications. Users should continue to get regular exercise, maintain weight, and eat a diet high in fiber and low in saturated fat.