About 12% of American adults and 7% of American children have high cholesterol. Since high cholesterol has no symptoms, it can be hard to spot without blood work, but the risks are real: Having elevated levels of the wrong type of cholesterol increases the risk for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, and for stroke, the fifth most common cause of death.
Despite the fact that most people have heard of cholesterol, there are still many cholesterol myths floating around. In this article, we’ll review the latest research and cholesterol facts, including the truth about high cholesterol and heart disease.
Myth #1: All Cholesterol Is Bad
There’s a lot of talk about high cholesterol, but not all cholesterol is bad.
The Facts: There are several types of cholesterol. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is considered a “bad” type, and unfortunately this type makes up most of the cholesterol in your body. LDL can stick to the walls of your blood vessels. This buildup, called plaque, can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.
However, you also have high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which is the “good” type. HDL absorbs cholesterol and brings it to the liver, where it is processed. LDL lowers your risk of heart disease and stroke.
A healthy range of total cholesterol is less than 200 milligrams per deciliter, with levels of LDL of less than 100 milligrams per deciliter, and HDL levels of at least 60 milligrams per deciliter.
Myth #2: High Cholesterol Foods Cause Heart Disease
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains that high cholesterol foods raise the risk for heart attack and stroke. However, new research is adding nuance to discussions about cholesterol in foods and heart disease.
The Facts: Lots of foods that are high in cholesterol, like red meats and dairy, also contain lots of fatty acids, which are linked to heart disease. New research points out that high-cholesterol foods that don’t have much fat, like eggs and shrimp, don’t contribute to heart disease.
Myth #3: Oats, Such as Oat Cereals, Are the Best Food for Cholesterol
Research shows that oatmeal can lower cholesterol. However, focusing on eating the right kinds of fats and increasing overall fiber intake may do more.
The Facts: Reducing your intake of fats, particularly saturated fats, is the first dietary change recommended to help reduce cholesterol.
Myth #4: You’ll Know If You Have High Cholesterol
Most people with high cholesterol have no symptoms.
The Facts: The only way to know what your cholesterol levels are is through blood work. Most adults need to have their cholesterol checked at least every five years. If you have a family history of high cholesterol or other conditions like diabetes, you should talk to your healthcare provider about whether you need more frequent tests.
Myth #5: Women Shouldn’t Worry About Heart Disease
Men and women have similar rates of high cholesterol, and everyone needs to be concerned about heart disease.
The Facts: Heart disease is the most common cause of death in American females, accounting for one in five deaths of American women. Heart disease can look different in women, so be sure to know the signs.
Myth #6: Eating Foods with High Cholesterol Will Raise Your Cholesterol Levels
The amount and type of fats you consume impact your cholesterol levels more.
The Facts: Eating lots of saturated fats and trans fats will raise your cholesterol. This is confusing, because many foods that are high in cholesterol also contain saturated fats. That’s the case with red meat and dairy. If you’re trying to lower your cholesterol levels, make sure that no more than 6% of your daily calories comes from saturated fats.
Myth #7: I Can Control My Cholesterol Levels with Just Exercise and Diet
Diet and exercise are important, but many people still need medications.
The Facts: If you have a family history of high cholesterol, or if you have type 2 diabetes or heart disease, you’ll likely need cholesterol medications, called statins.
Myth #8 Only Overweight People Have High Cholesterol
People of any weight can have high cholesterol.
The Facts: People who are overweight are more likely to have high cholesterol, but the condition can affect anyone, regardless of weight or activity level. All adults need their cholesterol levels checked regularly.
How to Lower LDL Cholesterol
If you have high cholesterol, you can lower your LDL cholesterol through diet, exercise, and medication. Certain lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking and limiting alcohol, can also help. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you should also incorporate cholesterol-lowering medications into your routine.
A Word From Verywell
Cholesterol plays a major role in overall health. Since high cholesterol has no obvious symptoms, it’s important that all adults have their levels checked every five years, regardless of their weight or activity level. People with a family history of high cholesterol should have their cholesterol levels checked even more often.
If you do have high cholesterol, remember that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. By eating fewer saturated fats, limiting alcohol, eliminating tobacco, and taking medications your healthcare provider prescribes, you can manage your cholesterol levels and live a healthy life.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is high cholesterol bad?
Having too much cholesterol in your bloodstream can lead to plaque buildup in your arteries. That increases your risk for heart attack and stroke.
What is a good LDL to HDL ratio?
Target cholesterol levels for most people are total cholesterol of less than 200 milligrams per deciliter, LDL of less than 100 milligrams per deciliter, and HDL of at least 60 milligrams per deciliter.