Wheat Consumption and the Lipid Panel

You might want to know how your wheat-free diet can improve your health. Your annual physical will nearly always yield a basic lipid panel, a blood test measuring overall cholesterol, LDL (low density lipoproteins), HDL (high density lipoproteins), and triglycerides. These markers are referred to as the “big four,” and the medical community gives them a lot of weight.

The panel is called a lipid panel and not a cholesterol panel for a reason. LDL and HDL aren't cholesterol at all; rather, they're vehicles that transport cholesterol around the body. You usually hear LDL described as “bad” cholesterol and HDL as “good” cholesterol.

Think of LDL as the cars that transport the cholesterol from the liver to various parts of the body; spreading cholesterol to the rest of the body has earned LDL the bad cholesterol label, even though distributing cholesterol is a very important job.

HDL, on the other hand, are the cars that drive the cholesterol from around the body back to the liver, where it's excreted. Taking up the excess cholesterol has earned HDL the good cholesterol label.

The conventional wisdom that has designated “good” and “bad” cholesterol is a bit outdated. Cholesterol is cholesterol no matter what car it's riding in. In fact, HDL can sometimes transfer their cholesterol to LDL for distribution. And the plot thickens: Sometimes the LDL actually return cholesterol to the liver.

Triglycerides are fats made in the liver. Total cholesterol is a measurement of the total amount of cholesterol that the LDL and HDL are carrying.

The following sections examine the actual panel and the recommended ranges for each component.

The unit of measurement seen on lipid panels is written as mg/dl. This represents milligrams per deciliter, and it simply shows how many milligrams of a substance is present in a deciliter of fluid — in this case, blood.

Taking in total cholesterol numbers

Your total cholesterol number represents the amount of LDL and HDL in your body. Your goal is to have a low total cholesterol number.

Level Category
Below 200 mg/dl Ideal
200–239 mg/dl Borderline high
240 mg/dl and above High

According to the Framingham Heart Study in Massachusetts, 50 percent of all people hospitalized with heart attacks have normal cholesterol levels below 240, and 20 percent have cholesterol levels below 200. So an “ideal” total cholesterol level doesn't give you a free pass to ignore heart health. Peer-reviewed medical research hasn't proven that having low total cholesterol in and of itself reduces the risk of death in a population.

Looking at LDL numbers

Your LDL number represents the amount of cholesterol that is being moved from your liver throughout the rest of your body. You generally want a low number to come back from your blood test. (An easy way to remember the goal is that the first L in LDL stands for low, so you want a low number in your test results.)

Level Category
Below 70 mg/dl Ideal for people with high risk
Below 100 mg/dl Ideal for people at risk
100–129 mg/dl Near ideal
130–159 mg/dl Borderline high
160–189 mg/dl High
190 mg/dl and above Very high

A large peer-reviewed study from the Get With the Guidelines database published in the American Heart Journal (2009) found the average LDL number for people hospitalized with heart disease was 105 (close to ideal). Almost half of the people studied had LDL numbers below 100. The analysis covered more than 136,000 hospital admissions.

The LDL measurement is for the weight of the cholesterol in the blood at a given time. If LDL are cars transporting cholesterol, the lipid panel actually measures the number of people in the cars, not the number of cars. Measuring LDL levels over time to monitor trends is a better way to analyze these lipids.

Highlighting HDL numbers

Your HDL number represents the amount of cholesterol that is being returned to your liver from the rest of your body. In this case, the higher the number, the better. (Just remember that the H in HDL correlates with high.)

Level Category
Below 40 mg/dl (men) Low
Below 50 mg/dl (women) Low
40–49 mg/dl (men) Borderline low
50–59 mg/dl (women) Borderline low
60 mg/dl and above Ideal

Smoking, not exercising, and eating lots of wheat and sugar lower your HDL levels, the opposite of what you want to happen.

Tracking triglyceride numbers

Your triglyceride number represents the amount of fat made by your liver as measured in your blood stream. You want this number to be low.

Level Category
Below 150 mg/dl Desirable
150–199 mg/dl Borderline high
200–499 mg/dl High
500 mg/dl and above Very high

Triglycerides are solely a product of consuming a high-wheat/high-carbohydrate diet and alcohol. Wheat and grains cause excessive rises in triglyceride levels. However, when you consume fatty foods that contain triglycerides, the blood levels don't change much because the body stops producing triglycerides on its own.

Using lipid panel ratios as indicators for heart disease

The ratio of total cholesterol to HDL is a strong indicator of future heart disease. For example, if your total cholesterol is 240 and your HDL is 60, then your ratio is 4:1 (240/60 = 4). The ideal ratio is 5:1 or lower for men and 4.4:1 or lower for women.

An easy way to start lowering this ratio is by exercising and cutting the wheat/grains and replacing them with more good fats. Your total cholesterol will drop, and your HDL will rise. In fact, HDL tends to rise steadily for many years if you follow this diet.

The most important numbers taken from the basic lipid panel involve both triglycerides and HDL. The triglyceride-to-HDL ratio has continually given the greatest indicator of future heart disease in peer-reviewed research. For example, if your triglycerides are 120 and your HDL is 40, your ratio is 3:1.

A good ratio to shoot for is below 2:1. Between 2:1 and 6:1 is the high range, and above 6:1 is the very dangerous range. Additionally, a ratio of 3:1 or higher is a strong indicator of insulin resistance.

Just like the total-cholesterol-to-HDL ratio, a lowfat diet that recommends a lot of whole wheat will make both these numbers go in the wrong direction. Those who have cut wheat and excess sugar from their diets find this ratio drops like a rock nearly 100 percent of the time.

Sadly, because most of the focus by drug companies has been on lowering LDL, HDL and triglyceride numbers can get overlooked. Even if your triglyceride/HDL ratio is above 6:1, your doctor may only mention it if your LDLs are in a good range.

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