If you want to stir up some controversy at the dinner table (but want to avoid politics), your second best bet is to bring up cholesterol.
This is because this controversial molecule has enough myths and misconceptions surrounding it to fill a novel. The truth is, cholesterol actually isn’t as bad as you might think.
Read on to finally get a clear explanation on the role of cholesterol in your body, and why it isn’t something to fear.
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty molecule found in every cell of your body. Due to its bad rap, cholesterol is mostly associated with heart disease and triglyceride issues. But cholesterol is essential for all animal life, and has several critical functions throughout your body: (1)
- Forms and maintains cell walls, including in the digestive system, which may help with gut issues
- Converts sunlight into vitamin D
- Helps absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K
- Necessary for bile production, which helps in the digestion of fats
- Creates hormones (specifically sex hormones)
One of the most common misconceptions surrounding cholesterol is that it only comes from food. In actuality, your liver produces most of the cholesterol found in your body, while only receiving a small amount daily from food on average. (2)
Interestingly, your body will also compensate its cholesterol production based on how much you’re consuming from food. So in essence, if you eat more cholesterol today, your body will produce less cholesterol today and more tomorrow. This is also why restricting or increasing cholesterol consumption in your diet isn’t necessarily effective.
HDL Cholesterol vs. LDL Cholesterol
You’ve most likely heard of HDL and LDL in relation to cholesterol. These are two types of lipoproteins, and they are responsible for carrying cholesterol throughout the body. By measuring the levels of each lipoprotein, doctors can give you a numerical reading for how much cholesterol is circulating in your bloodstream.
HDL (High-Density Lipoprotein)
If cholesterol had a “naughty or nice” list, HDL would be on the nice list. This is because HDL, or the “high-density” type, is a dense molecule that isn’t taking up much space, meaning it moves through the body more easily and more efficiently. In general, the higher your HDL number, the better, since it is a marker for “good” cholesterol.
Researchers also believe HDL acts as a “scavenger” of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol we’ll discuss in a moment), carrying it out of the bloodstream and back to the liver, where it is then broken down and passed out of your body. (3)
LDL (Low-Density Lipoprotein)
LDL cholesterol is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol. This is because its “low-density,” or fluffiness, is thought to contribute to the buildup of plaque in your arteries, causing narrower vessels that can result in stroke and heart attack. However, the modern consensus regarding LDL has yet to be conclusive – meaning lower isn’t necessarily better.
For instance, one study found that individuals with lower levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (below 110 mg/dl) had a “significantly elevated” mortality risk. Just how elevated? Try 990 percent. (4)
Cholesterol Levels: Why Lower Isn’t Always Better
For the past couple decades, we’ve been told without hesitation that the lower our cholesterol levels, the better.
Unfortunately, modern research is showing the exact opposite: lower cholesterol levels are actually associated with an increase in mortality, and keeping levels low doesn’t necessarily prevent disease. Check out some of the recent findings below:
- Low serum cholesterol levels are associated with higher mortality. (5)
- 75 percent of heart attack sufferers have “normal” cholesterol levels. (6)
- Lower cholesterol levels has been associated with an increased risk of dementia. (7)
- Low LDL cholesterol levels are associated with an increased cancer risk. (8)
Cholesterol and Heart Disease
Of course, the biggest controversy surrounding cholesterol is related to heart disease.
After the Framingham Heart Study of 1948, which was a purely observational study showing that increased cholesterol was associated with an increased risk of heart disease, people began to avoid cholesterol like the plague and tried to do whatever it took to lower their numbers, especially LDL.
Now we know that cholesterol is much more complex than the Framingham Study made it out to be. It is still a problem, of course, but the solution isn’t simply lower numbers or restricting cholesterol or fat in your diet (as we saw above, your body compensates, so this isn’t exactly effective).
And we now also know that low cholesterol is actually associated with higher mortality, so we can’t give a simple recommendation to lower your numbers or keep them in the “normal” range of less than 200 mg/dl total. (9)
Researchers are now starting to look at inflammation and other factors as root causes of heart disease – not necessarily high cholesterol. Studies have shown that inflammation, along with metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance, could be overall contributing factors to developing heart disease. (10)
So I Don’t Need to Avoid Eggs and Meat?
Fortunately, the theory that dietary cholesterol plays a huge role in overall cholesterol is falling to the wayside. This is mainly due to the rise in studies showing no correlation between high-cholesterol foods and actual cholesterol levels.
For instance, a study out of Finland showed that patients (some with a gene variant that caused them to have a higher risk of developing heart disease) eating eggs every day did not result in higher cholesterol numbers. It also found that cholesterol consumption didn’t result in an increase in artery thickness either – a marker for development of atherosclerosis. (11)
Cholesterol: The Bottom Line
As you can see, when you consider most of the modern research surrounding cholesterol, we find that it is not an isolated factor in the development of any disease. In fact, without considering other factors, it’s hard to find a specific disease caused exclusively by high cholesterol without some other factor, like inflammation, playing a role.
You main concern when it comes to cholesterol should be focusing on your body as a whole: do you have inflammation, or are you experiencing insulin or blood sugar issues? If so, you may need to look at an anti-inflammatory diet (like the Paleo diet) to help with this, while also working with your doctor or a holistic nutritionist to help treat the root cause of all of these factors.
The bottom line on cholesterol? It isn’t the dietary devil incarnate. It is an essential component of every animal, and we need it to survive.