By: Jake Batey, CSUN Dietetic Intern Cohort 2020-2021
What exactly is cholesterol? We hear about it all the time, but what is it and how does it affect our health? Should you worry about how much of it you eat? Cholesterol seems to have a negative connotation around it everywhere we look. Let’s dig into the research to find out more.
What is cholesterol and why is it important? Cholesterol is often described as being a fatty/waxy substance.1 Dietary sources of cholesterol include animal products, like chicken, beef, pork and dairy foods. Cholesterol plays an essential role within our bodies. We most definitely need it circulating through our system (to a certain degree) for normal bodily functions.2 It is essential as it produces many nutrients and hormones that we need to stay healthy.2 All of the cholesterol our bodies need to perform these necessary functions is produced by our liver.2
We know that high blood cholesterol levels increase our risk for cardiovascular disease. When we have too much cholesterol circulating through our blood, it can ultimately lead to plaque buildup within our arteries.1 This increases our risk for cardiac events like heart attack and stroke.1 With this being said, there is such a thing as “too much” cholesterol in our bodies, as it can lead to complications.
Since my liver produces cholesterol, do I need to have it in my diet?
Simply put, no. You do not need to have sources of cholesterol within your diet because our livers produce all that we need. At the same time, it is also okay to have some amounts within our diet. We know having high blood cholesterol is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but the amount you consume in your diet isn’t necessarily directly related to your own blood levels (a little confusing, I know). Your body has the ability to absorb some cholesterol from your diet, but most of the cholesterol circulating in your body is made in your liver.3 The effect dietary cholesterol has on our blood cholesterol levels isn’t as impactful as one may very reasonably think.
What causes high cholesterol? How can I lower mine?
High cholesterol may stem from a number of things including a genetic predisposition, and of course, diet. One may reasonably assume that eating high amounts of cholesterol will raise high blood cholesterol, right? Well, sort of. The main contributing dietary factors are actually saturated and trans fats.3 High amounts of saturated and trans fats can increase your cholesterol levels. The thing is, most foods high in cholesterol are also high in saturated fat, like meats and dairy.4 Trans fats are most often found in baked goods like pastries or fried foods. Ultimately, one may take control of his or her cholesterol levels by consulting with his or her physician and dietitian to get individualized guidance. In general, being physically active and swapping out foods that are high in saturated fats (red meat, dairy etc.) and trans fats (cookies, French fries etc.) for foods higher in unsaturated fats and fiber (fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts and lean meat) is a good place to start.4 The American Heart Association provides some great guidance on cooking healthy to help lower cholesterol HERE.5 The Marilyn Magaram Center at CSUN also offers one-on-one counseling with a registered dietitian (you can find out more HERE).6
Talk to your physician and dietitian to get a personalized approach. If you’re concerned with your cholesterol levels, try to focus more on being physically active and try to swap out high saturated/trans fat foods for other choices high in fiber and unsaturated fats. Just remember: the main dietary contributors to our blood cholesterol levels are family history, physical activity and saturated/trans fat intake, not cholesterol intake. Try to have a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and lean meats. Know your family history and stay active!
- National Library of Medicine. Cholesterol. MedlinePlus. Updated March 25, 2022. https://medlineplus.gov/cholesterol.html.
- American Heart Association. What is Cholesterol? Heart.org. Updated November 6, 2020. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/about-cholesterol
- Why You Should No Longer Worry About Cholesterol in Food. Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. Published January 15, 2021. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-you-should-no-longer-worry-about-cholesterol-in-food/.
- Cholesterol Myths and Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated January 4, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/myths_facts.htm
- American Heart Association. Cooking to Lower Cholesterol. Heart.org. Updated November 11, 2020. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/prevention-and-treatment-of-high-cholesterol-hyperlipidemia/cooking-to-lower-cholesterol
- Nutrition Counseling Now Available. Marilyn Magaram Center. Published April 7, 2020. https://www.csun.edu/marilyn-magaram-center/news/nutrition-counseling-now-available-online.