Everything You Need to Know About Cholesterol

Article posted in: Nutrition

With so much different information out there, it can get confusing when you’re trying to manage your health and make the right dietary choices. Cholesterol has been a controversial topic and it can be hard to figure out what is fact versus fiction. We’ve done the research for you and are here to tell you everything you need to know about cholesterol.

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The Body Needs Cholesterol


According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, cholesterol is a waxy substance found in our body’s cells and some of the foods that we eat. Animal products like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy contribute cholesterol to the diet says Healthline.

Harvard Health explains that the human body produces cholesterol in the liver and intestines to create vitamin D, cell membranes, hormones and bile acids. Because it is involved in so many important functions, cholesterol is needed in some capacity for proper health. However, according to Harvard Health, things can get dangerous when there’s too much in the blood.

Types of Cholesterol


There are two different types of cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). According the American Heart Association, LDL is typically recognized as the “bad” cholesterol because it may cause buildup of fat in the blood and arteries called atherosclerosis. This leads to “narrowing” of the arteries and creates an increased risk for heart attack, stroke and more. However, Harvard Health explains that not all LDL is created equal. LDL can vary in size from small and condensed to large and fluffy. The smaller LDL can work its way into the arteries easier, causing buildup. This makes the large and fluffy LDL particles potentially less dangerous says Harvard Health.

HDL is considered the “good” cholesterol because it “acts as a scavenger, carrying LDL particles away from the arteries and back to the liver, where the LDL is broken down and passed from the body,” says the American Heart Association. They also explain that HDL only carries up to a third of LDL and cannot eliminate it completely.

Risk Factors


The cause of high cholesterol can vary based on many factors, including diet and inactivity. Increased saturated fat intake has been associated with an increase in LDL cholesterol. However, a study in the journal, Metabolism, has shown that this increase is due to larger LDL particles. According to a review paper published in Open Heart, larger particles have a lower cardiovascular risk than small, dense LDL particles for coronary heart disease.

Diets rich in mono-unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids have also been associated with a shift from small, dense LDL to larger LDL particles. According to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal, Current Atherosclerosis Reports, diets high in carbohydrates, particularly simple sugars and starches with a high glycemic index, have been associated with higher levels of small, dense LDL particles, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Other risk factors include a sedentary lifestyle, which can lower your HDL cholesterol says Medline Plus. Smoking can also lower HDL while increasing LDL. Other risk factors include older age, obesity, certain medications, genetics and family history says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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Proper Diet

proper diet

When trying to prevent high cholesterol through the diet, there are several evidence-based recommendations:

  • Avoid trans fats. Cook with healthier mono-unsaturated oils, like olive oil or avocado oil.
  • Choose foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon and walnuts.
  • Eat nuts, seeds and whole grains. These contain plant sterols and stanols that are said to help lower LDL cholesterol according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
  • Eat foods that are rich in soluble fiber like vegetables, legumes and whole grains. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explains that soluble fiber is said to lower LDL cholesterol.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of American Heart Association also found that a walnut-rich, high-fat and low-carb diet had the most impact on cholesterol levels by decreasing LDL and increasing HDL, when compared to a low-fat, high-carb or low-carb, high-fat diet.

Keep Your Cholesterol in Check


Unfortunately, there’s no way to know your LDL is high without a blood test. The American Heart Association recommends that adults over the age of 20 to have their cholesterol checked every four to six years. This is especially important if you have any of the risk factors mentioned earlier, however, you should still have cholesterol levels tested regularly regardless of your weight, physical activity or diet. In addition, you can request that your doctor administer an LDL Particle test, which will provide insights into the size of your LDL particles to determine heart disease risk.

Certain medications can help to control cholesterol levels. However, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explains that “eating a heart-healthy diet, being physically active and achieving or maintaining a healthy body weight” can be beneficial to everyone. Every 10% drop in your cholesterol level decreases your risk of heart attack by 20 to 30 percent says Harvard Health.

The South Beach Diet meal plan is low in carbs and high in healthy fats. 30 minutes of physical activity is encouraged each day to help you reach a healthy weight.

Please Note: Speak to your doctor before making any dietary changes and to discuss any cholesterol concerns in more detail.

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