Cholesterol can be confusing. You may hear your primary care physician talk to you about your “cholesterol numbers,” but what do they really mean? And do you know that the foods you eat can change your levels? The Centers for Disease Control wants to make sure you know the difference between myths and facts when it concerns cholesterol. It’s important to commit to getting your cholesterol checked annually, so you can learn more about your risks of heart disease and stroke.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance used by your body to build cells. Cholesterol comes from your liver, or from foods derived from animals, such as meat, full-fat dairy products, and poultry. Some tropical oils, such as palm and coconut oil, can also cause your liver to produce more cholesterol.
In its efforts to educate people, the CDC offers these helpful myths and facts:
Myth: All cholesterol is bad for you.
Fact: There are some types of cholesterol that are important for maintaining good health. Your body requires cholesterol to do things such as making hormones and building cells. Cholesterol travels through your blood on proteins called lipoproteins. Two types of lipoproteins carry cholesterol throughout the body:
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein), sometimes called “bad” cholesterol, makes up most of your body’s cholesterol. Having high levels of LDL cholesterol can increase your chances of heart disease and stroke.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or “good” cholesterol carries cholesterol back to the liver. The liver flushes it from the body. High levels of HDL cholesterol can decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke.
When your body has too much LDL cholesterol, it can build up in the walls of your blood vessels. This buildup is called plaque. According to the CDC, your blood vessels build up plaque over time, the insides of the vessels narrow. This narrowing can restrict and eventually block blood flow to and from your heart and other organs. When blood flow to the heart is blocked, it can cause angina (chest pain) or a heart attack.
Myth: You can physically feel when you have high cholesterol.
Fact: High cholesterol usually has no signs or symptoms. You may not know you have unhealthy cholesterol levels until it is too late — when you have a heart attack or stroke. That makes it even more important to check your cholesterol levels at least every 4-to-6 years.
Myth: Eating foods with a lot of cholesterol will not increase your cholesterol levels.
Fact: This is a more complicated answer. Foods with high levels of cholesterol usually also have a lot of saturated fat, which can increase cholesterol numbers. It is best to eat foods with low saturated fats. Foods such as red meat, butter, and cheese have high levels of saturated fats.
Myth: You can’t do anything to change your cholesterol levels.
Fact: There are many ways to improve cholesterol levels and keep them within a healthy range. It is very important to have your cholesterol levels checked every 4- to-6 years unless your physician recommends a more frequent schedule. You can also improve your levels by limiting the number of foods you eat that are high in saturated fats; eat food high in fiber and unsaturated fats instead. You can also change your levels by ensuring you are active every day; try to do 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity weekly. If you smoke, quitting will decrease your risk of heart disease. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. It’s also important to talk to your healthcare provider about ways to manage your cholesterol and whether there are medicines that may help. And, if you have a family history of high cholesterol, you may consider getting tested more frequently.
Myth: You don’t need statins or other medicines for cholesterol.
Fact: Many people may be able to manage their cholesterol levels by making healthy food choices and increasing physical activity. But others may need medicines called “statins” to lower their levels. It is best to consult with your primary care provider, as people with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or very high levels of LDL cholesterol may need medications.
For more information about cholesterol, see https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/