The Cholesterol Myth

Eating fatty foods raises cholesterol to dangerous levels, endangering cardiovascular health, right? Not necessarily. Let’s take this step by step:

  • What is cholesterol? Like fats, cholesterol is a lipid, and like them, it’s essential for life.
  • How so? Cholesterol, along with fats, is essential for normal cellular function, hormone production, and infection fighting.
  • How is cholesterol different from fat? Cholesterol has no calories, so your body doesn’t burn it for energy.
  • In which foods is cholesterol found? Animal products contain cholesterol, but plants contain none?
  • So if I avoid animal products I can keep my cholesterol down? Not necessarily. Though you do absorb some cholesterol from eating animal products, your own liver makes the vast majority of the cholesterol in your body from scratch, independently of how much cholesterol you eat.

This is where it gets complicated. The amount of cholesterol in your diet influences your cholesterol levels somewhat, but so does your genetic predisposition and, most importantly, the mix of other nutrients you eat. Eating too many carbohydrates and the wrong kind has been shown to increase your triglycerides (another lipid) and your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and decrease your HDL (“good) cholesterol.

Bottom line: give your body the right combination of protein, fat and carbohydrate and it will safely process cholesterol, as evidenced by a body of research that shows the positive impact on cholesterol in individuals who follow the Atkins Diet or a comparable low-carbohydrate approach.