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Cholesterol: the myths, the truths, the eco-info :)

Sustainable Health Nutshell: use Unrefined Local-as-possible Organic-as-possible olive oil or ghee (clarified butter) for cooking, and add water to your cooking- especially roasting or sauteeing, so the oil you use and the food itself stays below 250 degrees and is therefore less likely to become oxidized and contribute to artery damage and cholesterol plaque buildup (cooking tip: let the 1/4 c or so of water boil off and remove from heat just after to retain the good flavors from the oil and spices you used too!). Avoiding refined and non-organic oils and high temperature cooking (including most processed food) helps save your health and the planet’s at the same time! Read on for the details! :)

Here’s a quick review of the basic info western medicine has to offer. Cholesterol is necessary for life (brain cell development, hormone construction, bile acids, cell walls, etc), but in above-average amounts cholesterol is correlated with heart disease, ‘fatty liver’ disease, and more. Stiff plaques are found in arteries of patients with heart disease and angina, strokes, claudication and certain types of kidney disease. Then there’s the breakdown of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol and triglycerides… We are taught by doctors, the government health agencies, and pharmaceutical companies that if we just lower the bad numbers and increase the good numbers with ‘lifestyle modification’ or drugs (like aspirin and simvastatin), we won’t get those diseases listed above. Well, we might not get them. Well, we might be less likely to get them. Sometimes. Depending on other risk factors. So, no, it’s not a sure thing. Not at all, actually.

Aspirin and Statins both help decrease inflammation in vessel walls that is the main cause of cholesterol plaques first sticking, then growing, then breaking off and clogging a downstream artery with blood clots that tried to repair the damage, thus killing the downstream tissue (this is what’s known as a heart attack). But what causes the inflammation in the first place? Tissue damage (from wear and tear, stress, infection, free radicals, etc) causes the blood vessel wall to send out inflammatory markers, which causes immune cells to come repair the damage. The cholesterol there gets eaten like the rest of the debris from the damage in a regulated manner by the white blood cells. However, if the cholesterol is oxidized the macrophages can’t regulate their uptake, become over-stuffed “foam cells,” and die, leaving an icky yellow streak on the wall of the damaged vessel, and releasing their insides that further break down the vessel wall, causing a thicker scar or ‘atheroma.’ The picture on the previous link gives you an idea of how this can block flow and you can imagine what happens if it gets too big or a piece breaks off and flows down to a thinner part of the artery. Yuck.

Oxidization and free radicals seem to be big keys in all kinds of inflammation (stress-induced, infection, auto-immune, etc). Free radicals are caused by many many things (including our own normally functioning cells), and are typically taken care of by our bodies and are not an issue unless the amount overwhelms our normal processes. Leaving infection and stress aside for the moment, what are our biggest sources of oxidized cholesterol we put into our bodies? Refined foods (that contain oils including trans fats, dairy, or other animal protein processed at high temperatures), charred food (yes, grilled meat… it’s burnt, and the carbohydrates turn to burnt sugar + fat = caramel= yum!= ama/toxins), and oils/fats cooked to high temperature. So what to do? The simplest thing is to stop intaking so much oxidized cholesterol- your body has enough free radicals all by itself to deal with without you overwhelming it. Then there is eating more vegetables, stress-reduction, exercise… today’s post is focusing on oil, though, so here’s the last puzzle piece for making real changes: Cook with water! Anti-climactic, I realize. But by simply adding water to cooking, for example in roasting pans, eggs (poaching), and to stir-fry cooking, you can help prevent the food and oil from overheating and oxidizing and overloading your immune system with extra free radicals.

Yay! But we’re not done. There is actually another piece. This blog is about the environment as well (and yes, you can use used cooking oil for biodiesel, but really we shouldn’t be frying often for the above reasons…), so the type of oil you choose to use, and the type of fats you eat in general are as important as how you use them. Fat is amazing stuff. It holds onto fat-soluble things- like hormones (PCOS and type 2 diabetes), and vitamins, but also things like pesticides. It also tends to concentrate and hold on to those things for a very long time.

So first, imagine a large animal (like a cow) eating a huge amount of non-organic corn, storing all that pesticide residue in its fat (which is mostly of the less healthy types Omega-6 and -9, and which it has more of than normal since cows weren’t built to eat so much carbohydrate at a time, much like people!)… and if you eat a piece of that well-marbled cow’s muscle, including the fat that’s been further oxidized and likely charred on that grill… It’s not so great for your arteries. Food for thought. But what about vegetable oils? Aren’t those “good for you?”

Imagine a field of, say, rapeseed (which originally was too toxic for human consumption until bred out to be lower in acid), even possibly “M” company’s Canadian GMO rapeseed (called ‘canola‘ which rhymes with granola, and sounds quite healthy!). Maybe the field was sprayed with pesticides. The seeds were harvested, cooked to crack the seeds, then pressed, creating more heat, to squeeze more oil out. If it was to be “refined,” then gasoline (hexane or heptane) was put on it to get the rest of the oil out of the seeds. It was then heated again to boil off the gasoline, then heated with phosphoric acid and water to ‘de-gum’ it, and then it was refined with sodium hydroxide (yep, drain cleaner!). Wow. Ok, still not done- in order to bleach it, it was passed through acid which creates peroxides, and finally to deodorize all the oxidization, it was steam distilled up to 518 degrees. Talk about high temperatures. Ew.

So, no, all vegetable oils aren’t necessarily good for you. Basically I’d like you to think about this when you’re choosing what to put in your body- think about not only the potential damage to arteries, but also the pesticides and potential GMO issues in crops used for both animal feed and cooking oil production (corn, soy, and other vegetable oils), and, of course, the petroleum used to bring that oil to you (in the fertilizer of non-organic crops, moving animals around and processing them, and flying the oil to you,… even EVOO from Italy. Jet fuel isn’t so good for the environment either and we have delicious olives right here in California! Arguably still far from, say, Maine… but I’m sure you have cows for making butter and ghee closer! :) ).

Slow down, think, and allow yourself and the planet better health with your choices.