Cholesterol is a type of fat that has specific functions in the body. It has a different chemical structure from the fat used for cooking or found in the fat cells of the body.
Cholesterol, in spite of the “bad press” it receives, is an essential part of every body cell.
- It is used in the body to form hormones including estrogen.
- Metabolites of cholesterol are essential for the absorption and digestion of dietary fat.
- With the help of the ultra- violet rays in sunlight, the cholesterol in the skin is converted into vitamin D, which is an essential nutrient for absorption of dietary calcium and for healthy bones
The term cholesterol refers to two different types:
1. Blood, or serum, cholesterol which circulates in the bloodstream.
- The body produces cholesterol for its needs and most of this cholesterol is made in the liver, although every body cell can in fact produce cholesterol. Therefore, the body is not dependant on dietary cholesterol for its requirements.
- When the body makes too much cholesterol, the risk of heart disease increases as the extra cholesterol is deposited and builds up in the arteries.
2. Dietary cholesterol that is found in foods of animal origin such as eggs, meat, fish, chicken and dairy products.
- Cholesterol is not made by plants therefore all foods of plant origin are cholesterol free.
- An eating pattern high in dietary cholesterol is one factor that may increase blood cholesterol levels in some individuals.
- In South Africa a major cause of high cholesterol is a genetic predisposition to forming too much cholesterol in the body.
- While dietary cholesterol may influence blood cholesterol levels, it does not automatically become blood cholesterol.
- The total fat intake, particularly saturated fat and trans fatty acids (found in some processed fats and oils), have a more significant effect on blood cholesterol than the actual dietary cholesterol.