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Do I Really Need to Pay Attention to the Cholesterol in Foods?

September 08, 2021

Warnings against eating foods high in cholesterol have been a mainstay of dietary recommendations for decades. Should you really worry about cholesterol in food? Is cholesterol good for you? Is cholesterol bad for you? That is a complicated discussion. If your head is spinning over the conflicting messages you hear about cholesterol, that’s not surprising. Researchers are learning more about cholesterol and saturated fat which is leading to changes in nutritional advice.

It has long been a common myth that cholesterol consumed in foods, called dietary cholesterol, impacts the level of cholesterol in your body. Well, consider that myth busted. Science is now speaking, and it seems the blame may have been misplaced all along. Other factors in our diet are more likely to be contributing to health problems and, specifically, heart disease.

Cholesterol has a bad reputation as its name is linked to heart attacks, strokes, and other types of cardiovascular disease. But our bodies need some cholesterol to function normally and can make all the cholesterol it needs. Cholesterol in the body is used to make hormones and vitamin D. It also plays a role in digestion. If there is too much cholesterol in the body, it builds up. This waxy buildup, called plaque, can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

High levels of “bad” cholesterol in the blood have been linked to heart disease and are still a health concern. But evidence shows people no longer have to be concerned about eating foods that are high in cholesterol. What’s changed is that many researchers and physicians believe that eating cholesterol-rich foods may not affect the cholesterol that is in your blood. 

The relationship between cholesterol and the body is complicated. The way people process cholesterol differs. Some people appear to be more vulnerable to cholesterol-rich diets.

Of all the nutrition information on food labels, cholesterol may be the most misunderstood. Part of the confusion comes from the fact that cholesterol in food isn’t the same as the cholesterol that clogs arteries. Foods high in cholesterol can cause blood levels of cholesterol to rise. But only about one in three people seem to be especially susceptible to the effects of cholesterol in food. 

Scientists say that genetic makeup rather than diet is the driving force behind cholesterol levels. About 85% of the cholesterol in a person’s circulation system is manufactured by the liver and not directly from the cholesterol that you eat. The body creates cholesterol in amounts much larger than what you consume, so avoiding foods high in cholesterol won’t affect blood cholesterol levels that much. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with a family history of heart disease may share similar environments that may increase their risk.

Dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol levels still may be related, but their dependence on one another is not quite as strong as suggested by previous dietary recommendations. According to the longest research study on heart disease to date, The Framingham Study, there is no relation between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol or heart disease deaths. The human body, when functioning properly, produces all the cholesterol that it needs and most importantly, it can rid itself of excess cholesterol.

If dietary cholesterol doesn’t affect blood cholesterol levels, what does? High blood cholesterol levels occur when the body’s mechanism for cleaning out excess cholesterol isn’t functioning. Genetics and dietary factors outside of cholesterol consumed are the two main reasons that this cleanup fails.

So what are the two biggest dietary culprits for high blood cholesterol? Turns out, it’s the type of fat you eat. Trans fats and saturated fats are implicated in causing heart disease, while unsaturated fats may have the reverse effect. Foods high in trans-fats are the ones that often appear on food labels as hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Fried foods, processed foods and stick margarine are the poster children for trans-fats. These are known for raising LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowering HDL (good) cholesterol. 

Saturated fats raise both LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol. High proportions of this form of fat can be found in animal products such as fatty meats, dairy products such as cream and butter and some vegetable oils such as coconut oil and palm oil. 

There are two primary forms of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. These fats, found in plant products such as olive oil, many seeds and nuts and some seafood, can positively affect blood cholesterol. 

There’s a growing consensus among nutrition scientists that cholesterol in food has little effect on the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream. And that’s the cholesterol that matters. Now that science is being taken into account, dietary recommendations are being re-evaluated. In the latest version of the Federal Dietary Guidelines, the cholesterol daily limit has been removed. Cholesterol in packaged foods isn’t a big issue. Three much more important numbers on the nutrition facts panel are serving size, calories per serving, and the type of fats. If you keep track of those, you don’t have to worry about how much cholesterol a packaged food contains.

If you are worried about your cholesterol levels, good or bad, providers at West Tennessee Medical Group Cardiology can help. Click here for more information on clinic hours, location and to schedule an appointment.