Cholesterol 101: What You Need To Know


Your body produces its own cholesterol to help with digestion, and cholesterol can also come from the foods you eat. While cholesterol is an essential part of our bodies too much cholesterol can prove to be harmful.

There are usually no signs or symptoms of high cholesterol, so unless you are checking your levels regularly, you may not be aware that there is a problem. People with chronically high cholesterol have an increased risk of circulatory disease, heart attack, and stroke so it’s important to annually assess your cholesterol levels and engage in steps to maintain normal cholesterol levels.

Your body needs a certain amount of cholesterol, as it is a key component in the membranes of your cells. It also plays a role in the production of vitamin D, various hormones, and bile acids, which help you to digest fat.

Types of Cholesterol

Cholesterol travels in your blood surrounded by a protein case known as a lipoprotein.

Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are known as “bad” cholesterol, as these are the type that can build up in your arteries. LDL carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells that need it, however, if you have too much circulating in your body it has the potential to accumulate in the artery walls, which can narrow the vessel over time, resulting in increased blood pressure and increased workload on your heart resulting in high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. The narrowing of the blood vessels may also increase the risk of clots forming, which can increase your risk of heart attacks or strokes.

High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are known as “good” cholesterol as it removes cholesterol from our bloodstream and brings it to the liver for processing. Having too little HDL cholesterol can raise your risk of heart disease.

What influences the levels of cholesterol in the blood?

Factors that affect cholesterol levels can be divided into those you can control, and those you cannot.

Age and genetics are two factors you cannot control. There are different hereditary factors such as familial hypercholesterolemia, an inherited condition that causes high cholesterol from a very young age. Generally, cholesterol levels will increase with age, so this is also a factor you cannot control.

Other factors you can control are your weight, dietary intake, physical activity levels, and whether you smoke or not. Being overweight or obese, smoking, and low physical activity levels all increase the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood. The relationship between food intake and high cholesterol has been debated for many years. It was thought that cholesterol in foods such as eggs and shellfish contributed to high cholesterol in humans; however, we now know that this is not the case.

How to eat to lower your cholesterol?

The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to 5 to 6 percent of daily calories and minimizing the amount of trans fat you eat. High consumption of trans fats has been shown to increase inflammation and chronic inflammation has been associated with an increased risk of developing cancer. Trans fats have also have been linked to increased cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Trans fats can be found in highly processed foods such as baked goods, chips, cookies, and fast foods. The FDA is taking steps to remove trans fats from the food supply – with many manufacturers completely removing trans fats by 2020. However, it’s still important to read food labels to confirm there are no trans fats.

Increasing fiber consumption is also important in managing your cholesterol levels. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is only found in plants. Our bodies cannot digest it so it moves through our bodies undigested. Because of this fiber inhibits the absorption of cholesterol by sequestering the cholesterol and preventing absorption into our bodies. We encourage a whole food plant-based diet that naturally is high in fiber to help manage cholesterol levels. Aim to consume a minimum of 25 – 35 grams of fiber each day.

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