Fats and Cholesterol in Shellfish
February 5, 2013
Culinary Nutritionist Jason Lau and Dietetic Intern Kelly Borg dispel the myth that lobster and shrimp can be overly detrimental to heart health.
February is American Heart Month and -- as we all know -- cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Over the past couple of decades, shellfish has been associated with high levels of cholesterol, which has led many health-conscious Americans to reduce their consumption of shellfish. But is shrimp and lobster really bad for your heart?
Monitoring cholesterol has become important because it is a controllable risk factor for cardiovascular health. However, the real issue lies in understanding the definition of cholesterol. There are generally two types of cholesterol floating in our bloodstream: the “good” (HDL) cholesterol and the “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. Although it might seem smart to look at the amount of cholesterol you eat -- especially if you have diabetes -- dietary cholesterol only contributes to about 25% of the cholesterol in your body. About 75% of your blood cholesterol is produced by the liver after consuming saturated “bad” fats, meaning it’s much more important to concern yourself with fatty foods than those which are high in cholesterol.
Shellfish contains a variety of chemicals called sterols, and cholesterols are under the umbrella of this chemical group. In the 90’s, scientists found it difficult to distinguish between different sterols and as a result, all of them were mistakenly labeled as “cholesterol”. Therefore, the amount of cholesterol in shellfish was overestimated. In reality, shellfish actually contains less cholesterol than meat or poultry.
Next, not all cholesterol is “bad”. The body needs cholesterol in order to perform certain functions. For example, it is one of the main components used to build cell walls and it also makes bile that helps emulsify fats for digestion and absorption purposes. Moreover, cholesterol helps with the synthesis of vitamin D and many other hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone.
Shellfish not only contains a low level of the unhealthy fats, but also typically boasts a high level of essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12, selenium and zinc. So the next time you visit your local market, feel free to reach out for the shrimp, clams or lobsters, and start incorporating these treasures from the sea into your diet.
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