Ah, cholesterol — you’ve heard of it, you know you shouldn’t have too much of it, and yet you’re probably still not sure what it does or why it exists. Your doctor’s probably warned you about the dangers of high cholesterol — it can cause a wealth of health issues, after all. But it actually does service your body in a lot of ways. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute explains it’s a fatty substance found in all of your cells, and it’s used by your body to make hormones, vitamin D, and to help with digestion. When you have too much, however, it can cause a deadly buildup in your arteries.
Now that you know the basics, it’s time to get more in-depth with some facts. You might be confused by what you’ve heard about cholesterol in the past, so here are the most common myths you really need to stop believing.
Myth No. 1: Coconut oil is a cholesterol-friendly alternative to butter
Coconut oil has been the hot topic of discussion among health nuts for some time — but if you deal with high cholesterol, you might want to skip it altogether. Walter C. Willett, M.D., tells Harvard Health Publications coconut oil is actually about 90% saturated fat. That’s even higher than butter, which is about 64% saturated fat, and beef fat, which is 40%. Here’s where things get interesting: Though it’s high in the saturated department, coconut oil has also been shown to improve good cholesterol levels.
The takeaway? If you’re working to lower your cholesterol, you still should use both coconut oil and butter sparingly. Your HDL levels might get a boost from the former, but the saturated fat content is concerning.
Myth No. 2: All the cholesterol in your body comes from your food
Maybe your doctor has mentioned you should lower your cholesterol. You might think this is purely due to the fact you’re eating foods that are raising your levels. But cholesterol comes from what your body produces, says the American Heart Association. Foods like meats, poultry, and full-fat dairy don’t just directly become plaque — they trigger your liver to create more cholesterol. But even on a low-cholesterol diet, your body still produces the substance. It just (in most cases) produces less when you’re eating healthy. If high levels run in your family, however, your body might naturally produce more than it needs.
Myth No. 3: Eggs are the enemy
You’ve heard this one before — eggs will raise your cholesterol, thus you should leave them out of your diet. But actually, eggs might protect your heart more than you think. Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health explains one egg contains about 200 milligrams of dietary cholesterol, but that’s not the same thing as the substance in your blood. In fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest the link between the dietary kind and the cholesterol in your blood is not closely related. Still, the American Heart Association does have a few guidelines — try to keep it to 300 milligrams a day if you’re healthy, or 200 grams if you have heart disease.
Myth No. 4: Americans have the highest cholesterol levels worldwide
You’ve probably heard on the news how processed foods and less movement are contributing to American obesity, high blood pressure, and cholesterol rates. But it’s important to note high cholesterol levels aren’t just an American problem — they’re a worldwide issue. One 2011 study reports Western European countries such as Greenland, Iceland, and Germany actually have the highest levels in the world. To top it all off, the U.S. and Canada had surprisingly low levels. Maybe citizens of the States are taking their health more seriously than we assumed.
Myth No. 5: You can only have high cholesterol if you’re older
Yes, your cholesterol is likely to rise as you get older. But that doesn’t mean young adults and children aren’t dealing with this issue as well. Children are more likely to have high cholesterol if they’re genetically predisposed, if they’re obese, or if their diet is full of highly processed foods, WebMD explains. It’s important for kids to get their levels checked by a doctor if any type of heart disease runs in the family, too. They can then get treated early on and learn habits to maintain a healthy lifestyle going forward.
Myth No. 6: All cholesterol is bad
When you hear the word “cholesterol,” you probably immediately imagine a buttery substance clogging your veins. In some cases, you’re not wrong. But there’s good cholesterol that can actually help protect your heart and arteries, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains you have two types of cholesterol — HDL and LDL. The former actually absorbs the waxy substance that clogs your arteries and flushes it from your system, thus making it good. LDL is what your doctor’s are worried about — this is what makes up the vein-blocking plaque that can give you problems. Raising your HDL levels actually helps your heart in the long run.
Myth No. 7: If a food contains 0 grams of cholesterol, it’s heart-healthy
You’ve probably seen a food label or two that advertises a product as being cholesterol-free. That must mean it’s healthy, right? Actually, it’s not the dietary cholesterol you really have to worry about — it’s the saturated and trans fats that primarily raise your levels. Berkeley Wellness explains the types of fats you’re consuming will have a much greater effect, such as the fats in animal products and many processed foods. Avocados and nuts are also full of fats, but they won’t negatively affect your cholesterol since they’re unsaturated.
Myth No. 8: Only overweight people can have high cholesterol
While it’s true being overweight puts you at a greater risk for having high cholesterol, thin folks can still develop this condition. The American Heart Association says your body type isn’t the only indicator of how high or low your cholesterol levels will be. In fact, many thin people who tend to eat a diet high in saturated and trans fats probably aren’t even aware they’re putting themselves at risk, thus they may not get their cholesterol checked. Remember, no matter what your body type is, you should always have regular doctor visits.
Myth No. 9: If you’re on cholesterol medication, you don’t need to worry about your diet
Medication saves lives, there’s no doubt about it. But depending solely on cholesterol medication and not making any improvements to your diet or exercise routine is a serious mistake in the long run. Mayo Clinic says you can help keep your cholesterol medication dosage low by losing weight, keeping your alcohol consumption low, and eating foods known to be good for your heart. If you’re just taking the pills without doing any of the other work to help yourself, you could end up having to increase your dosage.
Myth No. 10: If high cholesterol is your only health concern, you’re probably fine
You’ve visited the doctor and found your blood pressure and weight are all in perfectly normal ranges, but there’s one reading that’s too high — your cholesterol. While you might think this isn’t a huge deal, you really shouldn’t ignore this reading. WebMD explains having high cholesterol automatically puts you at an increased risk for heart disease or stroke, despite your healthy eating and regular exercise regimen. Your LDL levels should be below 190, and your HDL levels should be above 40.
Myth No. 11: All cholesterol medications basically do the same thing
You might not realize this, but there are many different types of cholesterol medications. Statins, an extremely popular type, prevent the liver from creating cholesterol in the first place, the American Heart Association explains. But if you’re pregnant or have liver problems, you shouldn’t take these. Instead, you might try a cholesterol absorption prohibitor, which prevents the intestines from absorbing the compound. Or, you could be prescribed another type of medication that increases how much cholesterol your body excretes. Your doctor will have one they recommend over others, but it’s nice to know you have options. And like we said before, keep up with an active, healthy lifestyle to maintain a low dosage and maybe even go off of meds in the future.
Myth No. 12: High cholesterol always leads to heart disease
We’ve said before you shouldn’t ignore your high cholesterol, but that also doesn’t mean you should go into panic mode. Healthline explains elevated cholesterol is one risk factor for heart disease, but there’s no guarantee it will cause you major problems. It just means you have a higher chance of developing issues later on. It’s important to note there are many risk factors for heart disease, like your family’s history, having high blood pressure, developing diabetes, and smoking, for example. So, if you have high cholesterol as well as any of these other factors, then your odds of developing heart problems increase. Do your best to keep a healthy lifestyle to combat the aspects out of your control (like aging and genetics).
Myth No. 13: You should eat more chicken and less beef if you have high cholesterol
When it comes to meat, chicken is on the healthier spectrum of choices, right? If you stick to the grill, you’re looking at a meal that will help keep your cholesterol levels low. As soon as you bread and fry that chicken, however, matters change. And Everyday Health explains you can ruin your low-cholesterol meal in a heartbeat by eating the chicken skin. In fact, a leg with the skin on typically has more fat and cholesterol than most hamburgers. Do yourself a favor and skip the dark meat and skin of the chicken. Otherwise, you might as well be eating that T-bone steak you really want (though we advise against this, too).
Myth No. 14: Having your cholesterol checked every decade or so is good enough
Don’t get too excited just because you got your cholesterol levels checked 10 years ago. Randy Wexler, M.D., tells Men’s Health he recommends all of his patients get a baseline reading by the time they’re 35 years old, and even earlier if they have a family history of heart disease. If your levels are normal at 35, Wexler says you should still get them checked every five years after that. If you develop high blood pressure or diabetes as you age, however, make sure to get a cholesterol reading annually to make sure nothing has changed for the worse.
Myth No. 15: High cholesterol only affects your heart
You know by now what high cholesterol does to your arteries, but it can also severely impact your sex life. Dr. Michael Krychman tells Fox News elevated cholesterol levels can cause blood vessels down by your pelvic area to clog, thus leading to less blood flow and erectile dysfunction for many men. And men aren’t the only ones affected here — high cholesterol can also cause a lack of lubrication in women, which can then result in lowered libido and painful intercourse. If you find your sex life has taken a sudden turn for the worse, getting your cholesterol levels checked out may be worth your while.