Article at a glance
Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the liver that circulates in the blood. It can also be found in the food that you eat. To learn more about cholesterol, read this section.
Cholesterol plays an important role in certain processes in the body, but too much of it can be harmful. To learn more about why too much cholesterol is bad for you, read this section.
A person’s cholesterol levels are affected by certain risk factors, some of these can be changed, and some can’t. To learn more about these risk factors and what you can do to lower your cholesterol levels, read this section.
Every one of us wants to be healthy, but doing the things that keep us healthy is hard work. When it comes to nutrition, one of the most common things mentioned is cholesterol, and how it should be lowered. But the body needs some cholesterol, and it even produces its own. There are 2 important things to know: (1) there’s such a thing as “too much” cholesterol, and (2) some foods contain “bad” cholesterol. Before jumping into extreme or fad diets, or completely avoiding high-cholesterol food, the first step in making an effective and long-lasting change is knowing what cholesterol is, what it does, and what causes it. Knowing these things can help you understand its importance and why normal levels should always be maintained.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a wax-like substance made up of fat. It’s found in the blood and circulates throughout the body through the blood vessels. It’s produced by the liver, which makes all the cholesterol you need. It can also come from the food that you eat such as meat, poultry, and dairy products. Contrary to what many people believe, cholesterol itself isn’t bad. In fact, your body needs it to make vitamins and build cells. It also helps your body function properly and has many important roles such as:
Cholesterol is an essential component of steroid hormones. Examples of steroid hormones include testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. These hormones are crucial for the reproductive system to function properly and are critical for the development of secondary sex characteristics, such as facial hair. Other examples of steroid hormones include cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol is needed for the maintenance of blood sugar levels and the prevention of infection, and aldosterone plays a role in the kidney’s function of retaining water.
Vitamin D production
Sunlight helps the body produce cholesterol through vitamin D. This important vitamin can also be obtained from foods rich in cholesterol, like eggs and fish oil. Vitamin D has many roles in the body, such as proper functioning of the nervous and immune systems, regulation of blood sugar, absorption of minerals, and proper metabolism and reproduction.
Cholesterol helps the body digest fat and fat-soluble vitamins.
Immune system improvement
Cholesterol helps fight off infections by attaching to toxins (poisons in the body) and neutralizing them.
Cell structure stability
Cholesterol is a major component of the cell membrane: it stabilizes its shape, allows for the passage of necessary nutrients, and assists in communication between cells.
Brain function improvement
Around 1/4 of the body’s cholesterol is found in the brain. Cholesterol is important for the brain cells to communicate with each other. Not having enough cholesterol available for the brain to use can lead to abnormal behavior and difficulty in thinking and learning.
Why is it bad to have high cholesterol?
Normally, the liver produces all the cholesterol that your body needs to function properly. But if you eat foods that are rich in cholesterol, such as those with high amounts of saturated and trans fats, this causes your liver to produce even more cholesterol —more than what you otherwise need. There are 2 main types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Triglycerides also cause a buildup of fats within your arteries.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL)
Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, is also known as “bad cholesterol.” It makes up the majority of the body’s total cholesterol. It’s considered bad because it’s responsible for fatty buildup that can clog up or narrow your arteries, causing a condition called “atherosclerosis.” Because the arteries are responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body, narrowing or complete blocking of an artery can lead to heart disease and stroke.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL)
High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is also known as “good cholesterol.” It’s responsible for taking LDL away from arteries and transporting it back to the liver to be broken down and removed from the body. This doesn’t mean that you should overload yourself with HDL cholesterol, because it only carries about one-fourth to one-third of the cholesterol in the blood. Nevertheless, a good HDL level is believed to be protective against heart disease and stroke.
In addition to LDL, triglycerides also play a role in the buildup of fats within the arteries. Aside from being the most common type of fat in the body, triglycerides are responsible for storing the excess energy the body gets from food.
All in all, a combination of high triglyceride and LDL levels or a low HDL level increases a person’s risk of atherosclerosis, the disease of the arteries that causes fatty buildup that narrows your arteries.
How to lower your cholesterol
Ideally, a total cholesterol level, which is measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) by your doctor, should be below 200 mg/dL, with an LDL cholesterol level of less than 100 mg/dL. Your HDL level shouldn’t fall below 40 mg/dL, and should ideally be 60 mg/dL or more, and your triglyceride level shouldn’t be more than 150 mg/dL.
Many things can affect cholesterol levels, and some of them you can’t do anything about. These include your age, gender and genetics. Cholesterol levels rise as people age, and in women, LDL cholesterol levels tend to rise after menopause. High cholesterol can also be inherited, so it can “run in families.” On the other hand, some things that you can change to improve your cholesterol levels include watching your diet, keeping your weight down, doing physical activity, and having a healthy lifestyle.
Dietary fats associated with LDL are called saturated fats and trans fats. Saturated fats turn solid at room temperature, and are found in animal-derived products like meat, milk, cheese and butter. Trans fats are found in fast foods and fried foods, and are used to prolong the shelf-life of processed goods like cookies and crackers. Below are some of the foods high in cholesterol that should be consumed in moderation:
Full-fat dairy such as whole milk, butter, full-fat yogurt, and full-fat cheese (alternatives: skim or 1%-2% milk, non-fat yogurt, extra-virgin olive oil)
Processed meat such as bacon, sausage, and hot dogs (alternatives: lean chicken or turkey)
Red meat such as steak, ribs, and pork chops (alternatives: lean ground beef, pork loin, flank steak)
Fried foods such as fried chicken and French fries (alternatives: baked chicken or turkey, baked potatoes)
Baked sweets such as cookies, cakes, and other pastries (alternative: bake these at home and use less butter and sugar)
Some foods that can help you lower LDL cholesterol include:
Oats, barley and other whole grains
Beans and nuts
Vegetables, like eggplant and okra
Vegetable oils like canola oil and sunflower oil
Fruits like apples, grapes and strawberries
Soy products like tofu and soy milk
Fatty fish like salmon and tuna
An important thing to remember when it comes to changing your diet is that you don’t need to completely get rid of every single high-cholesterol food product. You can still enjoy foods with cholesterol from time to time, as long as you choose to eat healthier alternatives more often.
Lifestyle changes that you can make to lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke include:
Maintain a healthy weight
Exercise or do physical activity on a regular basis
Limit alcohol intake
Being overweight or obese raises LDL levels in the body, because excess body fat changes the way the body uses cholesterol and slows down the removal of LDL from the body. Regular exercise can help maintain a healthy weight as well as lower your cholesterol and blood pressure levels. On the other hand, excess alcohol can increase cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the body, and smoking can damage the blood vessels, making them more likely to get clogged up.
When managing high cholesterol levels, moderation and consistency is key. Maintaining a healthy diet by consuming high-cholesterol foods in moderation, as well as being consistent with your dietary and lifestyle changes, can help lower your cholesterol levels and help keep you healthy.