Understanding Cholesterol and Fat: What You Need to Know

Understanding Cholesterol and Fat: What You Need to Know

You’ve probably heard a lot about cholesterol. It’s one of those terms that gets thrown around, especially in discussions about health, diet, and heart disease. But how much of what you know about cholesterol is fact, and how much is fiction? Let’s debunk some of the most common myths to give you a clearer understanding. 

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of waxy, lipid (fat). Surprisingly, the food you eat contributes to only about 20% of the total cholesterol in your bloodstream. Your body, specifically your liver, produces the remaining 80%. 

Benefits of Cholesterol

Too little cholesterol can be just as harmful as too much. Cholesterol plays a crucial role in key functions that keep your body running smoothly. 

  • Builds membrane structure: Cholesterol acts as a building block for your cell membranes.

  • Improves membrane fluidity: This allows for the easy transport of nutrients and waste products in and out of your cells.

  • Produces sex hormones: Cholesterol is a precursor for vital sex hormones testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen.

  • Improves fat metabolism: Your liver uses cholesterol to produce bile, a key player in digesting and processing fats.

  • Insulates nerve cells: By providing insulation for your nerve cells, cholesterol helps improve electrical signal transmission.

  • Facilitates vitamin D production: With the help of sunlight, your body converts cholesterol into vitamin D. 

Debunking 11 Common Myths about Cholesterol

It’s easy to find yourself tangled in the web of misinformation. Let’s set the record straight.

Myth #1: Cholesterol is always harmful.

Cholesterol isn’t the villain many believe it to be. Your body actually needs it for vital functions, like building cell membranes and producing hormones (including estrogen and testosterone), bile acid, and vitamin D. But cholesterol can’t move through your bloodstream by itself. Because fat and blood don’t mix, cholesterol must be carried by lipoproteins, particles made of fat and protein. 

There are five main types you should know about:

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), often labeled as the “bad” cholesterol, LDL carries cholesterol from your liver to cells. Too much circulating in your blood accumulates in the artery walls that supply your heart and brain—leading to a condition known as atherosclerosis. 

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is known as the “good” cholesterol. HDL’s job is to carry excess cholesterol from your cells back to your liver, where it’s processed and removed from your body. 

Chylomicrons are large particles that transport triglycerides (fats from your food). Produced in the digestive system, they’re directly influenced by your diet. 

Very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) particles also carry triglycerides to your tissues, but they’re produced in the liver instead. These are another type of “bad cholesterol”. As your cells absorb fatty acids from VLDLs, they transform into intermediate-density lipoproteins (IDLs) and eventually into LDL.

Intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL) particles form when VLDLs shed their fatty acids. Some are quickly removed by your liver, while others are converted into low-density lipoproteins.

Myth #2: High cholesterol is only a problem for older adults.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that high cholesterol is only a concern for older adults. Recent research shows that the habits and health choices you make in your younger years can have a lasting impact on your levels. A sedentary lifestyle, fueled with diets high in saturated fats, trans fats, and processed foods—means younger people are seeing their cholesterol levels climb. 

However, your genes have a say, too. Even the most health-conscious might face high cholesterol due to family history and genetics. That’s why starting cholesterol check-ups early on is crucial, whether you’re in your 20s, 30s, or beyond.

Myth #3: It’s best to stay away from all types of fat.

Fat plays a crucial role in your body. It’s not just a source of energy; it supports hormone production, cell growth, and helps your body absorb vitamins A, D, and E. It’s the kind of fat you consume that really matters.

Saturated Fats: Found in animal products and some plant-based oils, a healthy amount of saturated fat in your diet is fine. But moderation is key. Try to limit it to no more than 5-6% of your total daily calories.

Trans Fats: These are the ones to watch out for. Found primarily in processed foods, trans fats wreak havoc on your cholesterol levels by increasing LDL and decreasing HDL levels. Avoiding them entirely is a wise decision for your heart’s sake.

Unsaturated Fats: For a heart-healthy diet, shift your focus towards monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats can improve blood cholesterol, reduce inflammation, and help stabilize your heart rhythm. Look for these beneficial fats in avocados, fatty fish, nuts, and olive oil.

Myth #4: Low-fat and fat-free products are healthier.

Avoiding fat completely is not just impractical—it can harm your health. When manufacturers reduce or eliminate fat, they often replace it with added sugars or artificial ingredients, leading to an unwanted spike in blood sugar levels. And as we discussed earlier, your body needs healthy fats to absorb certain nutrients. By removing it, you miss out on essential, fat-soluble vitamins. Instead of fixating on the fat content alone, look closely at nutrition labels. Pay attention to sugar, fiber, and protein levels to better understand the overall nutritional value of your food.

Myth #5: If I feel fine, my cholesterol must be fine.

Just because you feel great doesn’t guarantee your cholesterol is. Cholesterol buildup doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a slow, gradual process that can begin as early as childhood and develop silently over decades. That’s why it’s often called a “silent” disease, as it typically doesn’t present any symptoms until significant damage has already occurred.

Lipid panel tests evaluate your LDL and HDL cholesterol levels and triglycerides, another type of fat in your blood. Waiting for symptoms like chest pain or breathlessness could mean you’re already late in addressing the problem. The best strategy? Take action early. For adults 20 and up, getting your cholesterol tested every four to six years is a smart move.

When you hear about getting a lipid panel or profile from your doctor, here’s what they’re looking at:

  • Total Cholesterol: You want this number to be below 200 mg/dL. Anything above that is considered high.
  • HDL (Good Cholesterol): Aiming for 60 mg/dL or higher is the goal.
  • LDL (Bad Cholesterol): You’ll want this lower, 100 mg/dL or less. 
  • Triglycerides: Another type you want to keep low, ideally under 150 mg/dL.

Myth #6: Being at a healthy weight means I don’t have high cholesterol.

While it’s true that excess body fat, especially around the abdomen, can lead to an increase in LDL” bad” cholesterol, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. Your diet, lifestyle choices, and genetics can all result in high cholesterol levels, regardless of weight.

Myth #7: High HDL levels guarantee a lower heart disease risk. 

While it’s true that HDL cholesterol reduces cardiovascular risk, very high levels don’t automatically offer more protection. And in some cases, too much can do more harm than good. Research has shown that the effectiveness of HDL is less about how much you have and more about its quality, which can be affected by genetics, body weight, lifestyle choices, and other factors

So, chasing high HDL numbers isn’t the magic solution for heart health. Attempts to boost HDL levels through certain medications haven’t consistently shown to cut down heart disease risks. Instead, focusing on a well-rounded wellness strategy is key—eating a nutritious diet, staying active, managing stress, and supplementing nutrients.

Myth #8: Cholesterol and saturated fat are the main causes of heart disease.

The belief that cholesterol and saturated fat are the primary causes of heart disease has shaped diets and medical advice for decades. But they’re not the only factors at play. Low magnesium levels are one of the top predictors of heart disease.

Magnesium is involved in over 80% of known metabolic functions and close to 1,000  enzymatic reactions, including regulating blood pressure, managing blood sugar levels, and metabolizing essential nutrients like calcium and potassium—all vital for maintaining a healthy heart. Magnesium also acts as a natural calcium channel blocker. This action helps your blood vessels relax and widen, ensuring smoother blood flow. When there’s a deficiency, your blood vessels narrow, increasing your blood pressure and putting extra stress on your heart. 

Myth #9: Only men need to worry about high cholesterol.

High cholesterol impacts both men and women but in different ways. Estrogen, a woman’s hormone, helps maintain higher levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. But as menopause approaches and estrogen levels begin to drop, so does this protective effect. Research shows that post-menopause, women develop about the same risk as men.

Myth #10: Statins have no negative side effects.

Statins work by inhibiting an enzyme in your liver that is responsible for cholesterol production. Some reported side effects include muscle pain and weakness, increased risk of diabetes, and liver enzyme changes.

Myth #11: Statins are the only way to manage high cholesterol.

If you’ve just found out you have high cholesterol, you might worry that medication is your only solution. The good news is, managing it is largely in your control with the help of a few lifestyle changes.

  • Nutrient Supplementation: Incorporating magnesium, vitamin D, and B vitamin supplements into your daily routine can be a game-changer. Magnesium plays a role in blood pressure and heart rhythm regulation, while vitamin D supports cholesterol production. B vitamins, especially niacin (B3), are vital for improving your HDL levels.
  • Healthy Fats: Embrace foods rich in poly or monounsaturated fats, such as nuts, olive oil, and avocados, and limit those high in saturated or trans fats like butter, margarine, cheese, and red meat.
  • Keep Moving: Aim for roughly 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week. While you can’t “burn off” cholesterol like you can with calories from your food, staying active improves the health of your blood vessels and heart, further reducing your risk of  cardiovascular issues.

Take Home Message

Keep in mind that managing your cholesterol is about balance and moderation, not fear. By debunking these common myths, you’re now equipped with a better understanding of cholesterol’s role in your heart health, so you can adopt the necessary lifestyle changes. 

Questions? Feel free to give our customer service team a call at 888-577-3703. We’re here to support you every step of the way.