Medically reviewed by Dr. Ogaga-Oghene Akpughe
When it comes to food labels and products, we are quick to watch out for dietary cholesterol and other foods high in dietary cholesterol. Even when we aren’t consciously on the lookout for them, food companies make sure we see and notice them. Talk about all the ads emphasizing on a product being cholesterol-free!
Some persons do not seem interested as to why foods high in dietary cholesterol are highly discouraged. Except you! You wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t mildly interested.
Our minds have been so “influenced” that we will almost always pick a food product that says cholesterol-free than one that says the exact opposite. Are these just marketing strategies? What makes them so bad that food companies and medical practitioners seem to not want you feasting on them? What does your body need: more, less or none?
To be fair, cholesterol is extremely controversial. For decades, dietary cholesterol has been seen as something to be avoided. Researches and studies conducted in those eras fueled the negativity around dietary cholesterol being a major contributor to increased risk of heart diseases. But what are the new studies saying?
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is produced in the liver. There are 2 sources of cholesterol: the cholesterol produced in the body (liver) and that taken in through food (dietary cholesterol).
Cholesterol in itself isn’t bad and plays several important roles in the human body. And these functions are non-negotiable. You can’t find something else to take over the roles of cholesterol. So why do people say it is? Because of the lipoproteins.
It is transported in the bloodstream by substances called lipoproteins. Lipoproteins have both protein and lipid components, hence the name. The two major types of lipoproteins are:
- Low-density lipoprotein LDL: Or bad cholesterol. This lipoprotein transports cholesterol in the bloodstream to the arteries. High levels of LDL mean that more amounts of cholesterol will be transported by them and your body, especially your heart does not want this. Because they create cholesterol deposits in arteries which restricts the ease of blood flow. This could eventually lead to heart diseases like high blood pressure.
- High-density lipoprotein HDL: Unlike the “bad cholesterol”, this good guy transports cholesterol in the bloodstream to the liver for usage or excretion. Higher levels of HDL mean more cholesterol will be effectively transported, hence, lowering your risk for heart diseases.
Why is cholesterol bad?
The problem as seen isn’t necessarily cholesterol itself – it’s LDL. People are advised to control their cholesterol intake because it is assumed that taking foods high in dietary cholesterol will significantly affect the levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream. The idea is that if blood cholesterol is lowered, then surely LDL will be out of work.
When the level of cholesterol in the bloodstream is high, more and more cholesterol is transported by LDL and deposited in arteries, hence, causing a blockage. This leads to atherosclerosis and further exposes you to cardiovascular problems like myocardial infarction (heart attack).
Does the body produce enough cholesterol?
Yes. The body is perfectly capable of producing enough cholesterol to meet its needs through the liver. So, without dietary inputs, your body is fine with its production. But, is it even possible to fully eliminate every source of dietary cholesterol?
The level of cholesterol in foods varies greatly with foods like an egg being high in cholesterol and foods like an avocado pear that do not have cholesterol at all.
Foods High in Dietary Cholesterol – your body might not need less or none
Dietary cholesterol is the cholesterol we find in foods and it differs from blood cholesterol. However, it has always been assumed that blood cholesterol levels are significantly influenced by dietary cholesterol.
That is, taking too many cholesterol-rich foods leads to high levels of blood cholesterol. This theory, a dietary cholesterol myth, was supported by studies carried out earlier.
These new studies have shown that blood cholesterol levels are usually not influenced by dietary cholesterol. In other words, taking foods high in cholesterol will not increase the levels of blood cholesterol. Except you are a hyper-responder. Hyper-responders are people whose blood cholesterol levels are influenced by dietary cholesterol; however, their risk of heart diseases is not raised.
What about heart diseases? Will foods high in dietary cholesterol cause you to have heart problems or even a heart attack?
No, they won’t. According to the studies conducted so far, dietary cholesterol has no significant relationship with heart diseases. What that means is that the amount of cholesterol you consume in foods do not increase your risk of having heart diseases. To further buttress this point, new dietary cholesterol recommendations have been made by the American dietary guidelines.
In 2015, the American dietary guidelines were revised to accommodate the findings of these studies on dietary cholesterol. The revisions were such that eliminated the restrictions formerly imposed on dietary cholesterol by the organization.
Every day, we take in cholesterol in different amounts. And with these new studies, it turns out we do not need to limit the amount of dietary cholesterol we take in. Hence, no need to steer clear cholesterol-rich foods like eggs, sardines, fish oil, grass-fed beef, full-fat dairy products, liver etc. These foods also happen to be very nutritious especially eggs and sardines!
Several studies conducted on the impact of the intake of eggs on heart disease risk showed that taking whole eggs (not more than 3 per day) increased the level of HDL thus, reducing your risk of heart diseases. However, this is not the case in a diabetic individual.
What then are the causes of high blood cholesterol if not foods high in dietary cholesterol?
The normal range for total cholesterol is lower than 170mg/dL. When blood cholesterol level exceeds this level significantly, one is said to have high blood cholesterol, but why?
Foods high in dietary cholesterol do not increase or decrease your blood cholesterol levels. Hence, do not cause heart diseases. However, increased blood cholesterol will cause heart diseases. What exactly is responsible for this increase?
- Genetics – Caught you off-guard, uh? A family history of high cholesterol might indicate your higher risk of having high cholesterol. This condition is termed familial hypercholesterolemia.
- Obesity – The extra weight can and will increase your cholesterol levels if not lost.
- Sedentary lifestyle – You are not getting enough physical activity. Even if it wasn’t sedentary, it is recommended that you get enough exercise, always.
- Diet – No way foods were going to be left out of this battle. While restricting dietary cholesterol foods isn’t the way out of this, keeping an eye out for the trans and saturated fats might get you out of this. FYI, trans fat is like “the” reason you shouldn’t do too much fry-time.
- Are you smoking? One more reason you might want to call it quits is that smoking might contribute to your blood cholesterol levels.
- Drinking too much? If you can’t let go off the booze, then cut down on it!
- What about stress? Being stressed has often been linked to hypercholesterolemia, hence, the need to relax and de-stress!
How then can you reduce your blood cholesterol levels?
To reduce blood cholesterol levels, you’ll need to effect some lifestyle and diet changes. For lifestyle changes, being more physically active will help, not smoking or drinking, and if you’re overweight, then losing weight is a good step forward.
Some foods help to reduce blood cholesterol levels and these foods are usually rich in fibre or unsaturated fats. Examples are fruits, veggies, nuts, avocado, legumes, etc.
Cholesterol and Children: Are Your Kids at Risk?
High cholesterol isn’t an adult’s problem only. Many children suffer from it as well and the first 3 things to point the finger at are:
- Inherited genes – It might be familial hypercholesterolemia
- Obesity!!! If your child is obese, then help the child lose the extra weight.
- Diet – What is your child eating? A balanced diet or something really far off the good food book?
For children, the normal numbers of total cholesterol (below 170mg/dL) are pretty much the same. And when the levels are high, the same thing happens. There are buildups of cholesterol in arteries. This hardens the arteries, restricts blood flow and pave the way for poor heart health.
The management for hypercholesterolemia in kids is the same as that for adults. Engage your kids in physical activity, cut down on screen time if they’re getting too much and watch their diet. Cut down on the sugary snacks and get them on balanced healthy meals. Kids watch and learn so if you’re cutting down on the amount of sugar they get, you should do so for yourself as well.
Note: Children with diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney or liver diseases have a higher risk of developing hypercholesterolemia.
Managing childhood hypercholesterolemia is important because if not properly managed, it leads to cardiovascular problems later in their lives.
What you should remember?
The dietary guidelines were revised about 5 years ago and that seems like quite a long time to shift the narrative but it hasn’t, why? Because 5 years isn’t long enough. And of course, not all medical professionals are on board with these new recommendations. Some scientists still feel that dietary cholesterol will cause heart problems.
Eating too much of any one food isn’t healthy, generally. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to eat most foods including foods high in cholesterol, for example, meat is healthier when boiled compared to when deep-fried.
Eat a wide variety of meals – a balanced diet. Foods high in dietary cholesterol should be taken in moderation. No one is saying feed only on these foods, you shouldn’t. Scientists are simply saying we do not need to eat very little of it.
Taking 5 eggs in a day because it’s rich in cholesterol sounds insane as does taking 1 egg in a month for the sole reason that it’s a cholesterol-rich food. However, while it will be healthy to eat 1 egg per month (vegans don’t take any at all), it won’t be healthy to take 5 eggs daily. And don’t forget that there are certain health conditions or lifestyle (such as being vegan) that will prevent you from enjoying these foods!
For a topic such as dietary cholesterol, the damage done to it took decades, not years! Hence, don’t expect this narrative to change anytime soon. Very many persons still do not know that they do not need to worry so much about foods high in dietary cholesterol edging on heart diseases. But they will catch up, eventually.
When it comes to foods, it doesn’t matter much if the food in particular, has the record of being the world’s healthiest food, stick to the rule of moderation. With all of these, it’s easy to abuse foods and thus causes health problems.
Eat a balanced diet, get enough exercise and live a healthy lifestyle and watch heart diseases flee from you!