Clearing Up Cholesterol Confusion

Confused about how your diet affects your cholesterol? Here are some answers.

If you’re one of the more than 70 million Americans who deal with high cholesterol (or worry you might join the club), you’re probably concerned about whether the cholesterol in your food will wind up as unhealthy cholesterol levels in your blood. For years, cholesterol in food has been demonized, and dietary guidelines recommended limiting your intake. But the tide seems to be turning — leaving would-be healthy eaters puzzled about which fats to seek out and which to avoid, just in time for National Cholesterol Education Month.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of fat that makes up cell membranes and is found only in animal products like meat, dairy and eggs. It performs several roles in our bodies, including forming protective sheaths around nerve fibers and helping produce testosterone and estrogen. But you don’t have to eat it — in fact, the liver and intestines manufacture plenty of it (from other sugars, fats and proteins we eat) to perform all the needed functions.

What happens when we eat foods high in it?

“The cholesterol in our food will become part of the circulating cholesterol in our blood,” says Libby Mills, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But it turns out, as a nation, we’re eating less of it than we used to — about 300 milligrams or less per day. “Consuming cholesterol at this level doesn’t affect blood cholesterol enough to put people at risk of heart disease,” Mills explains.

If cholesterol isn’t the problem, what is?

Some foods that are high in cholesterol — like eggs, shrimp and lobster — aren’t necessarily the issue. But foods that contain high amounts of saturated fats and, worse yet, trans fats, are. They will raise levels of LDL (the so-called bad cholesterol) and also decrease levels of HDL (the so-called good cholesterol).

So what should we eat?

Research has shown that increasing your intake of certain foods — namely, those containing soluble fiber and mono- and polyunsaturated fats — can have a positive effect on cholesterol levels. That means that while you’re busy decreasing your consumption of meat and dairy, you should focus on increasing your consumption of plant-based proteins like beans, lentils and whole grains, plus healthy fats like those found in nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil. “Monounsaturated fats have been shown to increase HDLs and improve the total-to-HDL cholesterol ratio,” says Mills. In fact, a recent study published in The Journal of the American Heart Association found that subjects who ate a moderate-fat diet — with the inclusion of one avocado a day — reduced their levels of LDL and improved their ratio of total cholesterol to HDL.

Looking for a creative way to add some heart-healthy avocado to your diet? Try this yummy take on hummus.

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.

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