Barbara Brody shared in Silver Sneakers for Trinity Health that you’d think we’d all understand cholesterol by now, especially considering that screenings are recommended at least every five years and millions of Americans take cholesterol-lowering medication. But doctors say that’s not the case. Many dangerous myths persist.
Below, we set the record straight with eight important—yet not-so-well-known—facts about this blood fat.
1. Cholesterol Is Important to Your Health
While too much raises your chances of having a heart attack, cholesterol actually serves some pretty important functions.
“Cholesterol is essential to various bodily processes, from insulating nerve cells in the brain to providing structure for the composition of cell membranes,” says Amgad N. Makaryus, M.D., an associate professor at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine and chairman of cardiac care at Nassau University Medical Center. You also need it to make vitamin D, certain hormones, and some enzymes that help break down food.
Another key point: You’ll want to pay attention to all your cholesterol numbers, not just total cholesterol. That’s because cholesterol—a waxy, fatty substance—is carried through the bloodstream by two types of particles: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).
LDL is often called the “bad” kind because it deposits plaque in the arteries, Dr. Makaryus explains. HDL, on the other hand, is often called “good” because its job is to take excess cholesterol out of your arteries and shunt it to the liver, where it can be broken down.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends talking to your doctor about your cholesterol numbers and how it affects your health. In general, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends:
- Total cholesterol: Under 200 mg/dL
- LDL cholesterol: Under 100 mg/dL
- HDL cholesterol: Over 60 mg/dL
2. High-Cholesterol Foods Probably Won’t Raise Your Levels
Unless you’re allergic or your doctor has specifically told you otherwise, go ahead and order the omelet.
“It’s true that eggs and shrimp contain a lot of dietary cholesterol, but dietary cholesterol isn’t nearly as dangerous as was once thought,” Dr. Makaryus says. “Only some of the cholesterol in food ends up as cholesterol in your bloodstream, and if dietary cholesterol intake rises, the body generally compensates by producing less cholesterol of its own.”
While you don’t want to overdo it with high-cholesterol foods, Dr. Makaryus adds, eating an egg or two or having shrimp a few times a week is not dangerous.
3. Your Dietary Priority: Cut Back on Saturated and Trans Fats
While eating some cholesterol-containing foods might not raise your numbers, getting too much saturated fat—found in butter, cheese, red meat, and other animal products—definitely will.
“Strong evidence indicates that saturated fat in the diet is positively associated with increased total and LDL cholesterol, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Ginger Hultin, R.D.N., a Seattle-based dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Less than 10 percent of your calories each day should come from saturated fats, according to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. To lower cholesterol, the AHA recommends limiting to 6 percent of your daily calories.
Meanwhile, you should consider trans fats—found in any packaged goods that list “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils among the ingredients—totally off-limits. They’re especially harmful because they raise LDL (bad cholesterol) while also lowering HDL (good cholesterol). In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has determined that eliminating trans fats could prevent “thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year.”