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Beyond the 'No Cholesterol' Label: Unraveling the Complexities of Plant-Based Diets


In discussions about dietary fats and health, animal products often take center stage due to their high levels of cholesterol and saturated fats. However, it's important to note that not all sources of "bad fats" are of animal origin. Certain plant oils, notably coconut and palm oil, are also rich in these types of fats. Consequently, consumers may be misled by food labels on these plant-based products that claim "no cholesterol," as the saturated fats within can still contribute to the body's cholesterol production once ingested.

A hand holding up a coconut with a straw in it.
Coconut Milk-based Beverage: Image Source: Wix Media

While the body requires and produces some cholesterol for essential functions like hormone production and cell membrane formation, excess cholesterol, particularly Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) or 'bad' cholesterol, can accumulate in the arteries, leading to serious health conditions such as heart disease and stroke. High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL), often referred to as 'good' cholesterol, aids in mitigating these risks by carrying LDL cholesterol back to the liver for elimination.


Interestingly, the foods we consume play a substantial role in this dynamic, including the impact of saturated fats on cholesterol levels. Understanding the conversion of saturated fats into cholesterol, the difference between LDL and HDL cholesterol, and the role of dietary components like green leafy vegetables and antioxidants in mitigating potential damage, is key to navigating this complex aspect of nutrition and health.


The Conversion of Saturated Fats into Cholesterol:

Saturated fats, found in animal products and some plant foods, are one type of dietary fat. When you consume foods high in saturated fats, your body uses what it needs for energy, and the rest is stored in fat cells. Excess saturated fat can contribute to the creation of cholesterol in your body.


How so? Well, in the liver, saturated fat is converted into cholesterol and triglycerides, both of which are lipids, or fats. The liver then packages these lipids, along with proteins, into particles called lipoproteins so they can be transported around the body in the bloodstream.

These lipoproteins include low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which are often referred to as "bad" and "good" cholesterol, respectively.


Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) vs. High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL):

LDL is often labeled as "bad" cholesterol because high levels of LDL can lead to a buildup of cholesterol in the arteries. This accumulation, known as plaque, can cause the arteries to harden and narrow, a condition known as atherosclerosis. If a clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery, a heart attack or stroke can occur (Sacks, 2002).


HDL, often referred to as the 'good' cholesterol, helps remove LDL cholesterol from arteries, carrying it back to the liver for breakdown and excretion. Thus, higher HDL levels are associated with better heart health, as they can reduce heart disease risk. While this could elevate total cholesterol levels, it's the LDL levels that are crucial for assessing vascular health (Allaire et al., 2017).

An image of a green superman with a lettuce cape
SuperLettuceMan: Source: MidJourney

How Green Leafy Vegetables and Antioxidants Mitigate the Negative Impacts of Consuming Saturated Fat:

Green leafy vegetables and other plant foods are rich in dietary fiber and antioxidants.

Dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber, can help lower LDL levels. Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol in the digestive system and helps remove it from the body before it can be absorbed into the bloodstream (Abutair et al., 2017).


Antioxidants, on the other hand, help by protecting your cells from damage caused by harmful molecules known as free radicals. Oxidized LDL cholesterol (that is, LDL cholesterol that has reacted with free radicals) is particularly harmful and more likely to contribute to atherosclerosis. Antioxidants can neutralize free radicals, potentially preventing LDL cholesterol from becoming oxidized and reducing the risk of heart disease (Li et al., 2017).


According to Chang et al. (2016) and Harvard Health Publishing (2019), foods rich in antioxidants, which are predominantly plant-based and colorful, offer a variety of health benefits, including protection against many chronic diseases. Berries, such as blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries, are particularly high in antioxidants like anthocyanins that give them their vibrant colors. Dark chocolate is also a surprising source of antioxidants, with the caveat that it must be high in cocoa content (70-85%). Green tea and coffee are antioxidant-rich beverages, with green tea being especially renowned for its catechin content.


Other antioxidant powerhouses include nuts and seeds, especially pecans and sunflower seeds, and vegetables like kale, spinach, and artichokes. It's also worth noting that herbs and spices, including clove, cinnamon, and oregano, although used in small amounts, are incredibly dense in antioxidants. Incorporating these foods into your diet can significantly boost your antioxidant intake, which in turn can help combat oxidative stress in the body (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).


It's worth noting that while leafy greens and other plant foods have these beneficial properties, they can't completely counteract the negative effects of a diet high in saturated fat. A balanced diet that is low in saturated fat and high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats is generally recommended for overall cardiovascular health.

Remember, it's always important to consult with a healthcare provider or dietitian for advice tailored to your individual dietary needs and health status.


See you time!


Dr. Finley aka Dr. Reiji, Dr. F.














References


Abutair, A. S., Naser, I. A., Hamed, A. T., & Soliman, M. M. (2017). Effect of dietary fiber intake on blood pressure control and biomarkers of endothelial function in patients with hypertension: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Human Hypertension, 31(8), 500-507. https://doi.org/10.1038/jhh.2017.25


Allaire, J., Cécile Vors, Couture, P., & Lamarche, B. (2017). LDL particle number and size and cardiovascular risk. 28(3), 261–266. https://doi.org/10.1097/mol.0000000000000419


‌Chang, S. C., Cassidy, A., Willett, W. C., Rimm, E. B., O’Reilly, E. J., & Okereke, O. I. (2016). Dietary flavonoid intake and risk of incident depression in midlife and older women. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 104(3), 704-714.


Harvard Health Publishing. (2019, January). Less heart-damaging inflammation with a vegan diet? Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/less-heart-damaging-inflammation-with-a-vegan-diet


Kar, S., Webber, L., Nevill, A., Park, D., Islam, N., & Agho, K. (2021). A Systematic Review of the Association Between Vegan Diets and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease. Journal of the American Heart Association, 10(7), e018347. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33831953/


Li, D., Zhang, Y., Liu, Y., Sun, R., & Xia, M. (2017). Purified Anthocyanin Supplementation Reduces Dyslipidemia, Enhances Antioxidant Capacity, and Prevents Insulin Resistance in Diabetic Patients. Journal of Nutrition, 145(4), 742–748. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/145/4/742/4585720


Sacks, F. M., Campos, H., & Obarzanek, E. (2002). Low-density lipoprotein size and cardiovascular disease: A reappraisal. Clinical Chemistry, 48(10), 1683–1696. https://doi.org/10.1093/clinchem/48.10.1683


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