There are many misconceptions around Cholesterol that I want to tackle in this post. I have inherited high cholesterol levels and so I have a personal interest in the subject.
Typically doctors tell me that I need to eat healthy; as if I don’t already do so as an athlete. I understand that many people have unhealthy diets that worsen pre-existing conditions or even lead to specific conditions, but when you have a healthy athlete in front of you, dishing out generic advise like that is a bit nonsensical.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that humans need to survive. Your body makes cholesterol and absorbs it from the foods you eat.
When people talk about cholesterol in relation to heart health, they usually aren’t talking about cholesterol itself.
They are actually referring to the structures that carry cholesterol in the bloodstream. These are called lipoproteins.
Lipoproteins are made of fat (lipid) on the inside and protein on the outside.
There are several kinds of lipoproteins, but the two most relevant to heart health are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
LDL makes up 60–70% of total blood lipoproteins and is responsible for carrying cholesterol particles throughout your body.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is often called “bad cholesterol.” It carries cholesterol to your arteries. If your levels of LDL cholesterol are too high, it can build up on the walls of your arteries.
The buildup is also known as cholesterol plaque. This plaque can narrow your arteries, limit your blood flow, and raise your risk of blood clots. If a blood clot blocks an artery in your heart or brain, it can cause a heart attack or stroke.
Generally speaking, the higher number of LDL particles you have, the greater your risk of developing heart disease.
HDL picks up excess cholesterol throughout your body and takes it back to your liver, where it can be used or excreted.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is sometimes called “good cholesterol.” It helps return LDL cholesterol to your liver to be removed from your body. This helps prevent cholesterol plaque from building up in your arteries.
When you have healthy levels of HDL cholesterol, it can help lower your risk of blood clots, heart disease, and stroke.
Let’s see what doctors typically consider as good or bad cholesterol levels:
- Lowering LDL cholesterol. Levels over 190 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) are considered dangerous.
- Improving HDL cholesterol. Around 60 mg/dL is considered protective, but less than 40 mg/dL is a risk factor for heart disease.
- Lowering total cholesterol. Less than 200 mg/dL is typically recommended.
- Lowering triglycerides. Less than 150 is considered normal range.
Now, there’s this misconception that the levels of cholesterol in your body are directly related to the amount of dietary cholesterol (cholesterol in the foods you consume). This is just plain false.
One of the typical foods doctors will tell you to cut out or limit if you have high cholesterol levels are eggs (especially egg yolks; the white is mostly protein and is low in cholesterol).
Common recommendations include a maximum of 2-6 yolks per week. However, there really isn’t much scientific support for these limitations.
Luckily, we do have a number of excellent studies that can put our minds at ease.
In these studies, people are split into two groups… one group eats several (1-3) whole eggs per day, the other group eats something else (like egg substitutes) instead. Then the researchers follow the people for a number of weeks/months.
These studies show that:
- In almost all cases, HDL (the “good”) cholesterol goes up.
- Total and LDL cholesterol levels usually don’t change, but sometimes they increase slightly.
- Eating Omega-3 enriched eggs can lower blood triglycerides, another important risk factor.
- Blood levels of carotenoid antioxidants like Lutein and Zeaxanthin increase significantly.
It appears that the response to whole egg consumption depends on the individual.
In 70% of people, it has no effect on Total or LDL cholesterol. However, in 30% of people (termed “hyper responders”), these numbers do go up slightly.
People who have predominantly large LDL particles have a lower risk of heart disease. So even if eggs cause mild increases in Total and LDL cholesterol levels, this is not a cause for concern.
The science is clear that up to 3 whole eggs per day are perfectly safe for healthy people who are trying to stay healthy.
Many observational studies show that people who eat eggs don’t have an increased risk of heart disease, but some of the studies do show an increased risk in diabetics. We should also remember that eggs are among the most nutritious foods on the planet. They contain important brain nutrients and powerful antioxidants that can protect the eyes.
It’s also important to keep in mind that not all eggs are the same. Most eggs at the supermarket are from chickens that are raised in factories and fed grain-based feeds.
The healthiest eggs are Omega-3 enriched eggs, or eggs from hens that are raised on pasture. These eggs are much higher in Omega-3s and important fat-soluble vitamins.
Overall, eating eggs is perfectly safe, even if you’re eating up to 3 whole eggs per day.
For years, people have been told that high-cholesterol foods can cause heart disease.
However, the studies mentioned above have made it clear that this is not the case.
It just so happens that many foods high in cholesterol are also among the healthiest foods on the planet.
These include grass-fed beef, whole eggs, full-fat dairy products, fish oil, shellfish, sardines and liver.
These foods are incredibly nutritious, so don’t avoid them just because of their cholesterol content.
High blood cholesterol levels are a risk factor for heart disease.
However, dietary cholesterol has little to no effect on blood cholesterol in most people.
More importantly, there is no significant link between the cholesterol you eat and your risk of heart disease.