If you’re reading this you’re probably aware that cholesterol is an important measure of your health, especially as you get older. What you may not know is that cholesterol is the number 1 leading cause of death for both men and women of nearly every ethnic and racial group in the US. It’s a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, heart attack, heart disease, and stroke and kills an average of one person every 36 seconds in the United States.
If all this sounds alarming—don’t worry. Managing your cholesterol and reducing your risk takes work, but it is possible with the right knowledge and tools. We’re going to quickly break down the top myths and facts about cholesterol so you know what actually works when it comes to caring for your cardiovascular health.
Myth #1: High Cholesterol Foods Won’t Increase Your Cholesterol
The truth behind this myth is a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no. Yes, high cholesterol foods have a tendency to increase overall cholesterol, but this is also because foods high in cholesterol also tend to be high in saturated fats. Saturated fats can certainly raise your cholesterol.
If you have high cholesterol or are at risk of having high cholesterol, it’s best to choose foods that are low in saturated fats and avoid foods high in saturated fats.
Some quick examples of foods to avoid (or eat in moderation) include:
- Red meat
Foods to include in your diet are foods with unsaturated fats and foods high in fiber such as:
- Olive oil
Changing up your diet often means changing your eating habits, but the health benefits are worth it in the long run.
Myth #2: All Cholesterol is Bad
You heard that right. Not all cholesterol is bad for you—in fact, your body needs cholesterol to build cells and make hormones that are essential for your body. Having cholesterol that is too low isn’t great either. The key to cholesterol is finding the right balance.
If you’re familiar with cholesterol levels you might have heard of “good” cholesterol (or HDL—high-density lipoprotein) and “bad” cholesterol (or LDL—low-density lipoprotein). These lipoproteins are responsible for carrying cholesterol throughout your body. LDL is considered “bad” cholesterol because high levels of LDL are associated with cardiovascular disease and stroke. This is because excessive LDL cholesterol builds up in blood vessels as plaque, which can slow and even stop the flow of blood and lead to blood clots resulting in heart attack and stroke.
Myth #3: You Can Tell if You Have High Cholesterol Based on How You Feel
Unfortunately, knowing you have high cholesterol isn’t something you can tell based on how you feel. In fact, if you don’t have regular cholesterol tests, you may only find out there is a problem once you have a stroke or a heart attack.
The best way to check your cholesterol and stay on top of any potential health risks down the road is to get tested regularly. The CDC recommends getting regular cholesterol checks every 5 years after the age of 20, and more frequently if you have a family history of cardiovascular disease.
The only outward symptom of high cholesterol is the occasional development of xanthomas on the skin. These yellow lesions on the skin often appear waxy and contain cholesterols and fats and are associated with health concerns like diabetes and high cholesterol.
The Facts About Cholesterol
If you’ve ever been tested you likely have an idea of what a “good” or “bad” level of cholesterol is. Your doctor can help you review your results and give you their professional opinion and insights, but whether you have “good” or “bad” cholesterol levels, it’s important to check your cholesterol frequently to ensure you’re in a healthy range.
The good news about cholesterol is that high cholesterol is heavily impacted by the health choices you make. Changing your diet, quitting smoking, getting more exercise, and taking the right medications and supplements can help you lower your cholesterol and have better health for a long and healthy life.