Did you spit out your morning brew at the news that the type of coffee you drink can raise your risk of heart disease? According to recent research, we should avoid boiled or cafetière coffee because it raises our cholesterol levels more than other kinds, especially filter. But wait. Didn’t scientists already decide that coffee was good for us?
You’re not alone in being confused. One minute we’re told to limit the eggs we eat because yolks are abundant in cholesterol, the next we’re free to consume as many as we like. Official health advice states that saturated fat is the main cause of high cholesterol, yet some scientists say this message is oversimplified, or even wrong. “The public hears mixed messages about cholesterol,” agrees Dr Dermot Neely, trustee of national cholesterol charity Heart UK. So, what is the truth about cholesterol and which foods could drive yours up in ways that might damage your health?
“The public hears mixed messages about cholesterol,” says Dr Dermot Neely. So what should we really be eating (and avoiding) for good heart health.Credit:iStock
What is cholesterol?
It is a fatty substance that travels through the blood on proteins called lipoproteins; some comes from the food we eat, but most (about 80 per cent) is made in the liver. Cholesterol is vital for building cells, for example, producing hormones, and making vitamin D. And there are two key types.
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) deliver cholesterol to the cells where it’s needed. It’s referred to as “bad” cholesterol because too much in the body can stick to the lining of arteries, clogging them up and increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. High-density lipoproteins (HDL), known as the “good” stuff, removes excess cholesterol and returns it to the liver, where it’s flushed away. It also helps protect arteries from inflammation.
Dr Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian and senior lecturer at Aston Medical School, says there are many pieces to the puzzle: the levels of triglycerides (another type of fat) in your blood, your weight, age, diet, medical history and whether you smoke. Some people have inherited health conditions that mean they’re especially susceptible to cholesterol damage. “There’s a general increased risk of heart disease if you have high cholesterol,” he says, “but it’s just part of a picture to be assessed.”
The main cause of high cholesterol is saturated fat, according to official health advice. “In general, products of saturated fats that exceed our energy requirements are more easily converted to cholesterol than unsaturated fats,” Dr Neely says. That’s why official health guidelines recommend replacing butter with unsaturated fats like olive oil. However, some scientists argue that not all saturated fats are the same.
Some research suggests that certain dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, might actually protect against – not contribute to – heart disease. One theory is that these foods contain types of saturated fats called odd-chain fatty acids that can’t be used to make “bad” LDL cholesterol.
“One of the main sources of saturated fat in the western diet is in baked goods – pies, pastries, cakes and biscuits – which have manufactured saturated fats in them,” says Dr Mellor. “These are what we need to watch out for because they don’t just come with the fats, they come with refined carbohydrates and flour, sugar and salt.” Highly processed and quickly absorbed by the body, these foods contain few, if any, nutrients that might limit the damage.
Products many people consider healthy, such as protein/energy bars, can be culprits, too. “Energy dense foods packed with a lot of sugar and fat, without much fibre, vitamins or minerals, are not going to be a good thing,” Dr Mellor says. Coconut oil – widely touted as an alternative to butter – should also be used sparingly as it can have a powerful cholesterol raising effect.
Being overweight can increase cholesterol, as can lack of sleep. Studies suggest that stress can be a risk factor, too. But the good news is exercise can help raise “good” HDL and lower “bad” LDL levels.
New research has also shown that women in the menopause could see their “bad” cholesterol rise due to declining oestrogen. HRT can help. But what about coffee? The latest research shows that substances called diterpenes in coffee have cholesterol-raising properties – but only in high amounts. There’s no evidence moderate coffee consumption – will increase the risk of heart disease, Dr Mellor says. “In fact, studies suggest coffee may reduce risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.” In other words, it’s not really the coffee we should be worried about – it’s the cakes and biscuits we eat with it.
The Telegraph, London
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