We all know that having too much cholesterol in our bloodstream can be a bad thing. Abnormal cholesterol levels (generally defined as total cholesterol greater than 200 mg/dL; LDL, or “bad” cholesterol greater than 130 mg/dL; and/or HDL, or “good” cholesterol less than 40 mg/dL) can lead to an increased risk of developing heart disease or stroke. This is due to the fact that many people with abnormal cholesterol often have high levels of LDL, which clings to artery walls and leads to the buildup of fatty plaques, and low levels of HDL, which normally helps remove excess LDL (but cannot do so efficiently if present in low quantities).
What we’re often unaware of, however, is just what causes abnormal cholesterol levels in the first place. For some people, it’s a genetic issue in which their bodies are unable to properly remove LDL from the bloodstream. For many others, however, the issue lies in the foods that they eat. Just which foods are these? The answer may be surprising.
It was long thought that foods that were high in cholesterol (like eggs and shellfish) raised cholesterol levels (particularly LDL) in the bloodstream. Thus, foods like the extremely nutritious egg received a bad reputation, and many people refrained from eating them. However, research has shown, and the recommendations from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reaffirm, that the cholesterol found in foods has little or no effect on blood levels of cholesterol. This means that eating eggs or other high-cholesterol foods in moderate amounts won’t cause you to have high or abnormal cholesterol levels.
The real culprits when it comes to abnormal cholesterol levels are saturated and trans fats, which are found in animal products and margarine and baked and processed foods, respectively. Excessive consumption of foods that contain these nutrients has been shown to raise blood cholesterol levels, particularly levels of heart-unhealthy LDL. So what does this mean for your diet? Moderate consumption of high-cholesterol foods like eggs and shellfish is okay, especially since these foods are rich in other beneficial nutrients like iron. Regular consumption of high-saturated and –trans fat foods like red meat and pastries, on the other hand, is not recommended, as eating too many of these types of foods is likely to cause an increase in LDL cholesterol levels. If you’ve been avoiding consuming foods that contain cholesterol because of what was previously believed, there’s no time like the present to start adding these foods back into your diet, preferably as a substitute for some of their higher-saturated fat counterparts!