Keeping an eye on your cholesterol levels seems a normal part of life, as it is not uncommon to hear someone say that they are watching their diet because of high cholesterol.
Elevated cholesterol levels are a concern for a lot of Americans.
Nearly 12% of adults age 20 and older had cholesterol above 240 mg/dL.
In children and adolescents, the percentage is around 7%.
Since high cholesterol is associated with an increased risk for serious conditions such as heart disease and strokes, many studies and recommendations are continually being updated in order to help control one’s cholesterol.
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is naturally found in your body.
It is produced by organs in your body or your diet. While cholesterol is important for normal body functions such as building cells and hormones, too much can cause illnesses.
Blood tests can detect how much cholesterol and other fats are in your body, such as triglycerides, low-density lipoproteins, and high-density lipoproteins.
These are usually done once every few years for adults. You may need this done early or regularly if you have risk factors for high cholesterol and/or family history of stroke or heart disease.
Blood levels above the normal range for cholesterol and fats are considered red flags and should be addressed.
What Causes High Cholesterol?
High cholesterol has been associated with being overweight, smoking, drinking alcohol, and not getting enough physical activity.
A family history is also a risk factor.
However, most of the interest and focus on what can raise or lower cholesterol levels are in your diet.
If you look up the relationship between diet to cholesterol levels, you will mostly see articles either on how a diet is rich in saturated fat or how your sugar intake could be raising your cholesterol.
Fat vs. Sugar
The most prevalent viewpoint for decades has been the bad effect of fats on the body.
The current recommendation is not to focus on just avoiding fats in your diet, but to consider whether saturated fats or unsaturated fats are being consumed.
Saturated fats are mostly from animal sources and are those that tend to stay solid and cause fatty deposits.
Unsaturated fats are mostly from plant sources and stay liquid at room temperature.
When your diet consists of saturated fats, the body receives a signal that there is an excess of cholesterol.
The body produces less cholesterol.
However, in other people, genetics or other factors can cause this feedback to go awry.
Cholesterol then starts to accumulate in the body, mostly in the lining of blood vessels where it can then cause disease.
On the other hand, unsaturated fats are seen as “the good kind” of fats and are accepted in recommended diets.
A look into previous literature and history has pointed out that fats have been mostly blamed as a way of benefitting the sugar industry, and that sugar is indeed worse.
Since then, more studies have been done regarding the role of sugar in cardiovascular disease, particularly free sugar or sugar added to food that is not naturally in the food’s cells.
There is more and more evidence linking foods rich in free sugar with an increase in cardiovascular disease.
It is recommended that dietary guidelines should focus on reducing the intake of concentrated sugars, more than reducing saturated fats.
Reviewing the studies shows that the intake of sugar more so than fats has an impact on the body’s cholesterol levels, but that the quality and type of sugar or fat matters.
It’s important to cut down on foods both high in saturated fat and those high in added sugar and focus on an overall balance of different food groups and eat more naturally-grown foods or those considered superfoods.
This way, the body is able to get needed nutrients, with less risk for increased cholesterol and all the associated diseases.
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