The New Truth About Cholesterol
Reader's Digest US|October 2021
The latest research and information will help you keep your levels in check
By Bonnie Munday

For most of my adult life, I mostly avoided eggs. I had read that since yolks are full of cholesterol, eating them would raise my blood cholesterol and harm my heart health. Then, around three years ago, with the goal of losing a few pounds, I reduced simple carbs and added more protein— including eggs—to my diet. I wondered what that would do to my cholesterol levels, so at my next checkup, I asked for a blood test. My doctor surprised me with this response: “We were wrong about that all along. The best research says you don’t need to avoid eggs.”

To reassure me, she ordered the blood test. The results? Same healthy cholesterol levels as before. It got me wondering how many other people were unnecessarily avoiding eggs and other foods based on old information. And now that I was in my 50s, what else should I be doing to make sure my cholesterol stayed in the safe zone? My research turned up some surprising facts.

First, the basics: High cholesterol is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. According to the largest-ever study of cholesterol levels, led by Imperial College London and published in 2020, high cholesterol is responsible for about 3.9 million deaths annually worldwide.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the liver and found in every cell in the body. It helps the body build hormones, vitamin D, and healthy cells, digest fatty foods, and more. There are two main lipoproteins that carry cholesterol in the blood. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the main type of “bad” cholesterol, delivers fatty particles throughout the body. The buildup of LDL on artery walls can block blood flow and lead to blood clots. This can cause a heart attack or stroke. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is considered “good” cholesterol because it picks up the LDL particles and returns them to the liver for excretion.

I also discovered some myths floating around about the causes and treatments of high cholesterol. It’s time to set the record straight.

MYTH: Foods that contain cholesterol are unhealthy.

TRUTH: Some are, but not all.

When a blood test shows a high level of LDL or other “bad” cholesterol, referred to as non-HDL cholesterol, it’s likely due to eating the wrong foods. But just because a food contains cholesterol doesn’t mean eating it will raise yours. Research in the 1960s linked the two, but several studies in the decades since have put this mistaken belief to rest. It depends more on the food’s saturated fat content.

Cholesterol is found in animal products—meats, seafood, egg yolks, and dairy products—and those high in saturated fat raise blood cholesterol. “The cholesterol and saturated fats reinforce each other when eaten simultaneously, making the effect on the body even worse,” says Martijn Katan, professor emeritus of nutrition at Free University Amsterdam. The worst culprits are high-fat dairy products, fatty red meats, and processed meats, whereas seafood such as prawns and squid, while high in cholesterol, are lower in saturated fat.

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