It commonly thought that eating foods high in cholesterol can raise your blood cholesterol levels, which in turn can increase your risk of heart disease, but does this “dietary cholesterol myth” actually hold any weight or is it OK to eat high-cholesterol foods?
It may not be as cut and dried as it may seem though, as there are many factors that can come into play when talking about cholesterol and it’s not all dependent on the cholesterol that is consumed in our diets.
Please view my medical disclaimer before reading on.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that is naturally occurring in the body and is an essential substance for you to have in your body to function properly, provided you do not have too much of the “bad” type in your system.
It is used in building cell membranes for every cell in the human body and it is also vital for the production of Vitamin D and hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen, and also producing bile acids.
Because cholesterol is a fat, it needs to travel through the bloodstream attached to particles known as lipoproteins. There are a number of different lipoproteins, but the two that are of most interest in regard to heart health are Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL) and High-Density Lipoproteins (HDL).
The “Good” And The “Bad” Cholesterol
LDL cholesterol is known as the “bad” cholesterol because it can build up in your arteries causing clots and blockages, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. The higher the level of LDL, the greater the risk.
HDL cholesterol is the “good” cholesterol because it carries LDL back to the liver where it can be excreted, thus reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. It can also protect against further LDL buildup.
Below is a table of the cholesterol ranges to aim for, sourced from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI):
Diet And Cholesterol Levels
It’s commonly thought that eating cholesterol raises blood cholesterol, however, this is not always the case, the body can actually regulate the amount of cholesterol it needs to produce. If it needs more, it will produce more. If you have consumed too much, then it won’t make as much.
In fact, the body can produce all of its necessary cholesterol through the liver and intestines using fat, sugars and proteins. It is not necessary to consume foods that are high in cholesterol in order to maintain adequate cholesterol levels.
That being said, there are certain fats, such as saturated and trans fats that can increase LDL levels in some people. As a rule saturated fats should be limited, but trans fats should be avoided all together, as they are highly processed oils and will increase your risk of heart disease.
What Else Can Affect Cholesterol Levels?
There are many other factors that can contribute to raising our LDL cholesterol levels and many of these can come down to our choices. These are:
- Smoking: Damages blood vessels, causes damage to arteries
- Sedentary lifestyle: Regular exercise will help with your cholesterol levels and blood pressure
- Obesity: Increases risk of heart disease
- Alcohol consumption: Excessive consumption will affect heart health
- Diabetes: High blood sugar increases risk of heart disease
- High Blood Pressure
Unfortunately, for some people, even making good lifestyle choices may not be enough to lower LDL levels. Genetic conditions can also play a part in cholesterol levels and taking medication is sometimes only way to get things under control.
It’s recommended to have your cholesterol levels tested every 4-6 years when you are over 20, but when you reach 40, your GP may decide that you will need more regular check ups, depending on your risk. (lifestyle choices, weight)
How To Reduce LDL
Apart from changing some of the lifestyle choices above, there are some foods that can help to reduce your LDL and increase your HDL. These include:
- Extra-virgin olive oil, safflower oil, corn oil
- Walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds
- Poppy seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds
- Fatty fish including salmon, trout and tuna
- Black beans, kidney beans, lentils
- High-Fiber fruits
- Whole grains including rice and oatmeal
- Green Tea
- Dark Chocolate
Most of these foods contain unsaturated fats (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated) and are considered the “good” fats for a healthy diet due to the fact that they great for heart health, among other things.
High Cholesterol Foods
Unless you have certain genetic conditions, recent studies have shown that eating high cholesterol foods will not adversely affect your cholesterol levels unless those foods contain trans fats or high amounts of saturated fats.
Most high cholesterol foods come from animal products and are usually highly nutritious. Below are some of the high cholesterol foods that are beneficial to your health:
- Organ meat
- Full Fat dairy products
- Grass-fed beef
Some of the high cholesterol foods to avoid are:
- Ice cream
- Processed meat
- Packaged baked goods
- Fast food
Many of these contain trans fats and added sugar.
Cholesterol plays any important role in the human body and high LDL levels can lead to serious health problems such as heart attack and stroke, so it is very important to periodically have your cholesterol levels checked so you can make any changes necessary to your lifestyle and avoid these issues.
The “dietary cholesterol myth” of raising blood cholesterol from consuming high cholesterol foods has largely been debunked, however, consuming high cholesterol foods that are high in saturated or trans fats can increase the risks.