Like an odometer on a car, our numbers seem to tick up each year as we keep on trucking. Another calendar year complete, many of us are booking our physicals and planning our cleanses and dry Januarys. We plan for our bloodwork at our annual check-ups, doing our due diligence, but how much do we really know about what those numbers mean and what factors actually drive them up?
We’ve come to know the terminology: HDL, LDL, good and bad cholesterol, triglycerides and some who are borderline or prediabetic have been introduced to the blood sugar measurement called “A1C.” How much time do doctors spend explaining just what those numbers mean? (Our medical industry is designed to be efficient — get us in, get us out — so docs don’t actually have much time to explain.) Once we’re over a certain level of cholesterol ratio, very often the only solution we’re offered is a statin, which will lower our numbers and, in some cases, will keep us heart healthier. But these don’t actually address the root of the problem.
As victims of the SAD (standard American diet,) we often feel that medication is the only answer to drive those numbers down as they swiftly approach catastrophic levels. But many medications do little to address the root cause of our problem, which, more often than not, is our diet.
I had just received my cholesterol reading and, while it was in the healthy range for an adult my age, it was only ten points from being borderline. I was borderline-borderline! I started thinking about what I was doing wrong — I was a nutrition professional for crying out loud — shouldn’t I be the spitting image of health?! It turns out there are a few things that can have to do with cholesterol, including pregnancy. My HDL (good cholesterol) had, at the time, increased by 29 points and my bad cholesterol (LDL) had gone down by a point. A bit of a relief, but still … borderline-borderline doesn’t sound cool to me.
As informed individuals, we know what contributes to raising our cholesterol — saturated fats, trans fats, dairy, meats and cheeses, to name a few — things that regularly top our list of favorite foods. There’s one culprit, however, that gets a bad rap for many afflictions including weight gain, inflammation, obesity and diabetes, but is rarely associated with cholesterol. It’s that crystalline white ghost again … the saboteur that casts a spell over us, beckoning for us to return for more … the white powder not found on ski slopes … sugar.
The higher our cholesterol levels, the more likely it is that our poor little arteries (the blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood throughout our entire body) are getting clogged by plaque build-up. As this occurs, our risk for heart disease and stroke increase as well, but what’s the connection between atherosclerosis (plaque-covered arterial walls) and sugar? Some cholesterol basics — triglycerides are unused calories which are stored for later use, whereas cholesterol (both HDL and LDL) is used to build cells and certain hormones. We need cholesterol, and our body actually makes about 1,000 mg a day, so it’s not something that’s bad, per se. It’s just that too much can lead to some not-so-good things. We know that sugar is bad on other levels, but surely it isn’t what gunks up our blood vessels — right?
Not so right. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, Americans consume about 22 teaspoons of sugar each day, which is equivalent to 88 grams of the sweet stuff (there are four grams of the sweet stuff in every teaspoon). Though the numbers are surprising, our national intake starts to make sense when we think about the fact that some seemingly healthy cereals contain 11 grams per (very small) serving, or that those yogurt tubes we give our kids contain 9 grams of sugar per tiny, tiny tube! Sugar, fructose and high fructose corn syrup are everywhere, as we’ve already discussed, but even the most health conscious among us are probably taking in much more sugar than we know.
Sugar consumption has been linked to lower levels of “good” cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL works as a transporter and delivers low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) to the liver for processing, where it gets it out of our system. Though it sounds like complicated factory work in action, the lower our HDL level is, the more it feels like our factory workers have gone on strike and the less LDL the liver is able to process. It’s like a supply chain issue within our bods!
A diet higher in sugar (and simple carbs, which break down to sugar,) can increase our weight, thereby predisposing us to higher cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and overall ill health. Eating refined sugar actually causes our liver to make more “bad” cholesterol, and lowers our “good” cholesterol levels, compounding the issue.
Higher triglyceride levels are attributed to higher sugar consumption as well. Triglycerides are a type of fat stored from calories that our body doesn’t use as energy immediately following a meal. When our body needs energy between meals, fat cells release them as “snacks” between meals. If we eat more calories than we burn, we don’t release triglycerides, leaving our levels high and increasing our risk of heart disease. Sugar blocks an enzyme needed to break them down so our body can purge them.
There is even some conjecture that taking in too much sugar can alter the LDL molecules, giving them the ability to clog our arteries more readily than their unaltered LDL predecessors, which increases the risk of blood clots, and thereby, stroke. By now, with this endless pandemic, we are no strangers to spontaneous genetic mutations. There seems to be a correlation here, where sugar makes the LDL more “virulent” and thus able to more easily coat our vulnerable blood vessels. That’s the last things we need.
This sugar imbalance leads to lower levels of “good” cholesterol and higher levels of “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides, creating a melee of disruptions. Though saturated fats in particular have long been touted as the main cause of high cholesterol, sugar is swiftly overtaking them as a main contributor. The communication of this fact seems slow to catch up with the science.
What to do?
There are solutions, and we already know most of them. It may seem difficult to implement them on our own as we combat food companies that sneak sugar into our foods in any way, shape and form they can.
In addition to refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, fructose and yes, even those sneaky artificial sweeteners, steering clear of things that break down into sugar quickly (I’m looking you, simple carbs) will benefit all of our numbers and levels, not to mention our energy levels. Simple carbs include white flour, white bread, white rice, pizza dough, pasta, bagels, buns, many cereals, most crackers and pancakes and waffles not made with whole wheat flour.
Most food labels are shockingly misaligned with the guidelines set forth by the American Heart Association, which recommends that women consume no more than 100 calories from sugar (about 6 teaspoons,) and that men consume no more than 150 calories from sugar, which equates to 9 teaspoons. Woman, man, child or dog, this is less than the amount of sugar in a 20-ounce soda. That’s food for thought, or soda for thought at the very least.
Baked crab cakes
(with spicy tartar sauce)
Tartar sauce recipe
1/2 cup full fat mayonnaise
1 tablespoon sweet pickle relish
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons minced shallot
1 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste
1-2 tablespoons chopped parsley, as desired
Sriracha sauce to taste (try to find a natural one without preservatives)
Mix all ingredients together to serve with crab cakes. Refrigerate.
1 pound jumbo lump crab meat
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 large egg beaten
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
4 dashes hot sauce or to taste
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs unflavored
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon lemon zest
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Cover a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place crab into a large bowl, sifting through for hard pieces.
In a separate bowl, combine mayonnaise, egg, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, Old Bay and hot sauce. Whisk together.
Add bread crumbs, parsley and lemon zest to bowl of crab, tossing with hand.
Add wet ingredients, saving a little. Mix and add until coated and slightly wet.
Toss with hands, forming into medium sized cakes.
Bake for about 12 minutes until golden brown.
Flip and bake another 5 to 7 minutes or until crisp and cooked through.
Serve immediately or cold.
Refrigerate overnight if desired.