Let’s talk about cholesterol – is it good or bad? Who is at risk for heart disease because of cholesterol? According to research performed by the Harvard School of Public Health and the American Heart Association, there are quite a few cholesterol myths that need to be addressed.
Myth #1: High cholesterol levels are always bad
Before you load up on bacon and eggs, high overall levels of cholesterol are still a bad thing – but high levels of HDL cholesterol are actually a good thing! Most forms of cholesterol treatment involve raising your HDL levels (“good” cholesterol) while lowering your LDL levels (“bad” cholesterol). Healthy cholesterol levels must be properly balanced to achieve lower risk for arterial disease.
Myth #2: I need to stick to a low fat, low cholesterol diet to have healthy cholesterol levels
A recent Harvard study showed that the amount of fat intake didn’t make any difference in increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke as long as it was polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat. In fact, people who consumed high levels of these types of fat actually had very healthy cholesterol levels and were typically in a very low risk category. Similarly, cholesterol intake didn’t seem to affect blood cholesterol levels nearly as much as the types of fat consumed.
In the studies performed, the most dangerous type of fat to consume, without question, was trans fat. Trans fat is commonly found in partially hydrogenated oils – a chemical process that makes products more shelf stable and flavorful. Unfortunately, trans fat has also proven to be a large contributing factor toward arterial plaque, and should be avoided where possible.
Myth #3: I eat healthy and exercise every day, so I am not at risk for high cholesterol
The truth is, if you are genetically predisposed to have bad cholesterol levels, diet and exercise may not place you in a low risk category by themselves. You will still benefit greatly from having a good diet and getting frequent vigorous exercise (at least 30 minutes to 1 hour daily), but you may need to take further steps.
The human body produces approximately 75% of the cholesterol it needs to perform its regular functions and maintain strong cell walls. People who are genetically predisposed to produce high amounts of LDL while producing lower amounts of HDL are simply in need of a little extra help to balance these levels. If diet and exercise isn’t quite enough, talk to your doctor about taking further steps, especially if heart attacks and strokes have occurred with other members of your family.
Myth #4: I’m under 50 and feel fine, so I don’t need to worry
Have you ever read stories about healthy, strong 25 year olds who die of heart failure on the bike trail or in the middle of a run? This doesn’t happen overnight, and it can often be prevented!
The American Heart Association recommends that all people 20 years of age and older have a fasting lipoprotein profile performed, continuing the practice at regular intervals. This establishes levels of HDL, LDL, and triglycerides in your blood. It also helps doctors assess your risk and develop a plan to prevent arterial disease. Without this assessment, you may be building up plaque in your arteries without having any visible sign until a heart attack or stroke occurs.
Myth #5: Vegetarians can’t have high cholesterol in their diets
There are plenty of vegetarian foods with high levels of saturated and trans fats. Who doesn’t like a plate of stir-fried vegetables, or a slice of birthday cake from time to time?
Studies have shown that diets consisting of more than 60% carbohydrates, or rich in saturated fats are dangerous at best. Foods like coconut, coconut oil, and palm kernel oil, are high in saturated fat, and most processed foods are filled with saturated and trans fats, as well as high levels of carbohydrates – including whole grains! Frequently consuming these foods can place you in a high risk category.
Heart Healthy Solutions
So what’s the solution to staying heart healthy without having to remain on extreme diets and medication? The answer is slightly different for each of us, but some things are true for us all. Avoid processed foods when possible and stay away from all trans fats while limiting saturated fat intake. Exercise frequently, and see your doctor to ensure that your cholesterol levels are optimal at all times.
Author: Kevin Freeman
Fats and Cholesterol: Out with the Bad, In with the Good
What Your Cholesterol Levels Mean
Good vs. Bad Cholesterol
Common Misconceptions about Cholesterol
Cooking for Lower Cholesterol
Prevention and Treatment of High Cholesterol