Understanding Cholesterol, the Types & Common Myths
Although high cholesterol needs to be taken seriously, the truths of cholesterol are often misunderstood and flawed. Learn all about cholesterol and cut the ties of its associated myths!
"How does cholesterol work?" "What is the link between cholesterol and heart disease?" "What are the common types of cholesterol?"
These seem to be common questions wondered in the general population in regards to taking protective measures of the heart.
Although cholesterol comes with negative attachments, it is often misunderstood. We are explaining how cholesterol works and debunking common myths.
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the body's cells and needed for a multitude of functions in the body. These include the production of:
• Vitamin D, a vitamin essential for bone support, mental health, amongst the many benefits and functions
• Vital hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, aldosterone, and cortisone
• Bile, the greenish-yellow secretion produced from the liver. It enhances the absorption of fats and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
The liver is primarily responsible for cholesterol production and helps facilitate its circulation throughout the body. Dietary cholesterol is sourced from animal products, including eggs, chicken, pork, beef, milk, yogurt, and cheese. Fruits, veggies, legumes, and other plant products are naturally cholesterol-free.
Cholesterol is also fat-soluble, meaning it is unable to dissolve in the blood. To navigate throughout the blood, it requires a lipoprotein transporter that functions as a carrier vehicle.
All cholesterol is the same, but the lipoproteins vary. There are primarily two types of cholesterol lipoproteins, including low-density (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) lipoproteins.
Low-density (LDL) or "bad" cholesterol related to its plaque build-up in excess amounts.
High levels of plaque on blood vessel walls is known as atherosclerosis, a condition in which arteries become hardened and clogged. This can result in a blood clot and cause a heart attack or stroke.
An optimal LDL range is a reading of less than 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
Known as the "good" cholesterol due to its ability to remove the "bad" kind from artery walls. HDL cholesterol takes LDL cholesterol to the liver where it can be broken down and further excreted from the body.
WebMD warns HDL levels less than 40 mg/dL is not good and the higher the level the better. A recommended HDL cholesterol level is 60 mg/dL or higher.
Total cholesterol is the total amount of cholesterol in the blood. It includes both HDL and LDL levels.
Total cholesterol levels should be 200 mg/dL or lower. However, if considered to be high, it is important to consider if HDL or LDL caused the elevation.
Five Most Common Cholesterol Misconceptions
People often think the words "high cholesterol" comes with flashing, red hazard lights.
While high levels may need to be taken seriously, elevations are not always indicative of poor health.
In fact, the truths of cholesterol are often misunderstood and flawed. Learn the truth and how to reduce cholesterol by making healthy lifestyle choices.
Keeping cholesterol within recommended ranges is important to facilitate vital functions in the body. It lowers the overall risk of heart disease as well.
Despite the benefit of cholesterol, there are common misconceptions regarding the nutrient, including these top 5 myths we are debunking.
1. Eating Eggs Increases Cholesterol Levels
Given up those beloved breakfast eggs each morning? Perhaps the most common cholesterol myth is eating eggs inherently increases cholesterol levels.
It was once believed that giving up egg yolks should be practiced to reduce total cholesterol levels. However, the newest 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) sets no target on cholesterol consumption. Saturated and trans fats and high-sugar diets are known to increase blood cholesterol rather than dietary cholesterol itself.
It is still important to monitor blood cholesterol levels and speak with a doctor to identify a safe target. Working with a dietitian can help make individual nutrition recommendations based on needs and requirements as well.
2. Eating Cholesterol Results in Heart and Arterial Disease
This compares to the belief described above. Like eggs, natural suppliers of cholesterol have a seat in a nutritious diet without ongoing worry of poor heart health.
Besides, animal products also offer much more than cholesterol – iron in beef, calcium in milk, and zinc in shellfish. Like any food, it is important to stick to the concept of moderation and adhere to portion sizes.
The American Heart Association's (AHA) newly updated diet and lifestyle recommendations align with the most recent DGAs. One should limit saturated fat and trans fat to reduce blood cholesterol.
3. A Low-Fat Diet Is the Best Kind of Diet
There is this general misconception that eating fat contributes to gaining body fat. Although it certainly can if choosing poor quality and consumed in excess, the body needs fat for day-to-day functions.
Dietary fat is needed in a well-balanced diet, particularly the healthier fats known as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats do wonders for the body, including:
• Controlling hunger levels
• Promoting a healthy metabolism
• Protecting vital organs
• Lowering the risk of heart disease
What's more, often commercially produced "low-fat" foods, such as low-fat dressings and yogurts, often contain excess sugar and additives.
It is also worthy to mention there are situations that may justify a low-fat diet. For instance, low-fat diets are often prescribed to manage diseases of the gallbladder or pancreas and other malabsorption conditions. Always speak with a doctor and dietitian to help determine dietary fat needs and recommended sources.
4. Medication Is the Only Way to Reduce Cholesterol
Despite the effectiveness of cholesterol-lowering statins, medication is not the only way to reduce cholesterol. Making lifestyle choices and changes can reduce cholesterol levels.
Diet is one of the most effective methods to reduce cholesterol, particularly when including more nutrient-dense foods such as:
• Whole grains
• Fruits and veggies
• Lean and plant-based proteins
• Low-fat milk and dairy products
• Healthy fat sources
Partaking in regular physical activity can further reduce LDL cholesterol, especially in coordination with diet and weight management. There are additional beneficial effects on insulin resistance, blood pressure, serum triglycerides, and HDL cholesterol.
Ultimately, a balanced diet paired with increased exercise can help those successfully lose weight and manage cholesterol. Smoke cessation and stress management are valuable cardio-protective measures as well.
5. Cholesterol Is Only Concerning In Middle Age
Major risk factors for heart disease and high cholesterol include age. However, cholesterol is important to consider throughout the entire lifespan, including in childhood.
Monitoring cholesterol at a young age is especially essential if children are at risk for high cholesterol, including family history. The American Heart Association recommends all adults 20 and older have their cholesterol checked every four to six years. One should also work with a doctor to determine their risk for cardiovascular disease.
Ultimately, all can benefit from making healthy lifestyle choices to lower heart disease risk and improve overall health at any age.
Carson JAS, Lichtenstein AH, Anderson CA, et al. Dietary Cholesterol and Cardiovascular Risk: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2020;141(3). doi:10.1161/cir.0000000000000743.
LDL: The "Bad" Cholesterol. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ldlthebadcholesterol.html. Published April 18, 2019.
Dehghan M, Mente A, Rangarajan S, et al. Association of egg intake with blood lipids, cardiovascular disease, and mortality in 177,000 people in 50 countries. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2020. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqz348