“You have a severely blocked coronary artery, about a 95% obstruction . . . At this moment you are a heart attack statistic just waiting to happen.”

THIRTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD Joe could hardly believe these words of a cardiologist who examined him to determine the cause of his chest pain. Almost half of those who will die of heart disease are not even aware that they have it.

But what led up to Joe’s condition?

“For 32 years I ate the typical American ‘meat and milk’ diet,” laments Joe. “Somehow the fact that the American diet is hazardous to my health fell through the cracks.”

What was wrong with Joe’s diet? Basically, it contained too much cholesterol and fat, especially saturated fat. From his youth, Joe had been setting himself up for coronary heart disease with nearly every forkful of food. A high-fat diet is, in fact, linked to five of the ten leading causes of death in the United States. At the top of the list is coronary disease.

So, yes, your diet can kill you!

The Role of Cholesterol

Cholesterol is essential to life. It is found in the cells of all humans and animals. Our liver produces cholesterol, and it is also found in varying amounts in foods we eat. Blood carries cholesterol to the cells in molecules called lipoproteins. The two types of lipoproteins that carry most of the blood cholesterol are low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).

LDLs are rich in cholesterol. As they circulate in the bloodstream, they enter cells through LDL receptors on cell walls and are broken down for use by the cell. Most cells in the body have such receptors, and they take up some LDL. But the liver is designed so that 70 percent of the removal of LDL from the bloodstream by LDL receptors occurs there.

HDLs, on the other hand, are cholesterol-thirsty molecules. When traveling through the bloodstream, they soak up surplus cholesterol and transport it to the liver. The liver breaks down cholesterol and eliminates it from the body. The body is thus marvelously designed to utilize the cholesterol it needs and to discard the rest.

The problem occurs when there is excessive LDL in the blood. This increases the possibility of a buildup of plaque on artery walls. When plaque buildup occurs, the arteries become narrow and the amount of oxygen-carrying blood that can pass through them decreases. This condition is called atherosclerosis. The process continues slowly and silently, taking decades to manifest discernible symptoms. One symptom is angina pectoris, or chest pain, like Joe experienced.

Not surprisingly, LDL is called bad cholesterol, and HDL good cholesterol. If LDL tests high or HDL low, the risk of heart disease is high.

Let’s now see how your diet can affect this level.

Cholesterol is a natural part of foods derived from animals. Meat, eggs, fish, poultry, and dairy products all contain cholesterol. Foods from plants, on the other hand, are free of cholesterol.

The body produces all the cholesterol it needs, so cholesterol consumed in food is extra. Most of our dietary cholesterol ends up in the liver. Ordinarily, as dietary cholesterol enters the liver, the liver processes it and decreases its own production of cholesterol. This keeps the total amount of cholesterol in the blood regulated.

What happens, though, if the diet is so abundant in cholesterol that it cannot be quickly processed by the liver? The likelihood of cholesterol directly entering the cells of the artery wall is increased. When it does, the process of atherosclerosis occurs. The situation is especially dangerous when the body continues to make the same amount of cholesterol regardless of the amount of dietary cholesterol consumed. In the United States, 1 in 5 persons has this problem.

Cutting down on your intake of dietary cholesterol, then, is a course of wisdom. But another component of our diet has an even greater effect on the level of blood cholesterolsaturated fats.

Good and Bad Fats

Fats fall into two categories: saturated and unsaturated.

Unsaturated fats can be either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Unsaturated fats are better for you than their saturated counterparts, since consuming saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in the blood. Saturated fats do this in two ways: They help create more cholesterol in the liver, and they suppress LDL receptors on liver cells, reducing the speed of removal of LDL from the blood.

Saturated fats are primarily found in foods of animal origin, such as butter, egg yolks, lard, milk, ice cream, meat, and poultry. They are also prevalent in chocolate, coconut and its oils, vegetable shortening, and palm oil.

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are liquid at room temperature. Foods that contain monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats may help to decrease your blood-cholesterol level if substituted for foods containing saturated fats. While polyunsaturated fats, common in corn oil and sunflower-seed oil, reduce both good and bad cholesterol, monounsaturated fats, plentiful in olive oil and canola oil, reduce only the bad cholesterol without affecting the good cholesterol.

Fats, of course, are a necessary part of our diet. Without them, for instance, there would be no absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K. The fat requirements of the body, however, are very small. They are easily met through the consumption of vegetables, beans, grains, and fruits. So minimizing the intake of saturated fats does not deprive the body of needed nutrients.

Does your LDL test high, and HDL low?

A simple blood test will often indicate impending danger long before a person experiences noticeable symptoms, such as angina. However, even your cholesterol levels are within the desired limits, you may still be at risk. Recent studies indicate that dietary cholesterol may affect the risk of coronary heart disease independently of its effect on blood cholesterol.

“Cholesterol-rich foods promote heart disease even in people with low blood cholesterol,” says Dr. Jeremiah Stamler, of Northwestern University.

There is also the matter of fat in the diet. Too much fat in the blood, be it from saturated or unsaturated fat in the food, causes red blood cells to clump together. Such thickened blood does not pass through the narrow capillaries, causing the tissues to be deprived of needed nutrients. Clumped cells moving along the arteries also disrupt the oxygen distribution to artery walls, causing surface damage, where plaque can easily begin to form.

A simple blood test does not reveal everything you need to know. I offer a very inexpensive Chinese MRI to check your cholesterol levels, blood thickening level, and oxygen distribution to major arteries.  This could be the start of a healthier you!