Cholesterol is good for you.
Yes, that's right — cholesterol, the waxy, fat-like substance that can clog your blog vessels and lead to heart attack, stroke and even premature death, is essential to your good health.
"It's a myth that cholesterol is a bad thing," says dietitian Katie Jordanhazy of Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem. "Our liver produces some cholesterol, but we need it in our diet as well to be sure we have enough."
After all, cholesterol aids memory and digestion, and helps your body make important hormones, vitamin D and healthy cells.
The problem arises when you have too much of it — especially if there's too much artery-clogging LDL (bad) cholesterol and not enough HDL (good) cholesterol to help prevent a buildup. It's smart to know your cholesterol numbers, but these days, doctors think more broadly about your risk for coronary artery disease, Jordanhazy said.
Here are five more misconceptions about cholesterol that might surprise you.
Myth No. 1: The safest foods are those with the words "cholesterol free" on the label.
Fact: It's safest to stay away from processed and packaged foods, and cholesterol-free claims are often overblown, Jordanhazy says.
"Only foods that come from animals — meats, dairy, eggs etc. — contain cholesterol," she says. "If we are eating plant-based foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables and vegetable fats, we do not need to be concerned with cholesterol."
Shop smart: Look for the word "hydrogenated" on the ingredient list. It means food contains transfat, which increases bad LDL cholesterol in your blood while lowering protective HDL levels.
Beware: If a food has less than 0.5 gram per serving, the label can legally say it has 0 transfat. Peanut butter is one example. Eat more than a single serving, and those fractional grams add up.
Myth No. 2: Eggs are bad for you.
Fact: Eggs are rich in protein and can be part of a healthy diet, Jordanhazy says. Though yolks contain about 180 mg of cholesterol, egg whites have none. If your cholesterol is high, try using one yolk with two whites, she suggests.
Set limits: Experts used to recommend no more than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol a day. Current guidelines put greater emphasis on limiting foods that are high in saturated fat. Those are the same ones that tend to be high in cholesterol.
Myth No. 3: Fat is the enemy.
Fact: Your body needs fat to function, Jordanhazy said. It builds cell membranes, helps with blood clotting and muscle movement and reduces inflammation, which plays a role in everything from Alzheimer's disease to diabetes and heart disease.
"The type of fat you consume on a regular basis determines whether it will be beneficial or harmful to your body," she says. "Healthy fats include poly and monounsaturated fats. Saturated fats should be limited and transfats should be avoided altogether."
Not sure which is which? At room temperature, unsaturated fats are liquid; saturated fats are solid (think: butter or the marbling on a good steak). "That's how they work in our bodies too," Jordanhazy says. "Saturated fats are just a little more sticky and clog the arteries more. Unsaturated fats move through the arteries a little easier."
Choose healthy fat: A good source of monounsaturated fat is avocado. Use it instead of mayonnaise, heavy dressings and butter. Omega-3 fatty acids are also heart-healthy: You'll find them in walnuts, flax or chia seeds and fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel and herring. Olive oil is another healthy fat — and the healthiest is cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil, Jordanhazy says. Use it on toast, veggies and in salad dressings.
Myth No. 4: Avoiding cholesterol in your diet is the best way to lower your cholesterol.
Fact: While people with high cholesterol should limit dietary cholesterol, Jordanhazy says the best way to improve your numbers is to replace saturated and transfats with healthy ones and eat more fiber and whole grains. (You'll find cholesterol-friendly fibers in oats, bran, beans, apples, berries and pears.)
Go Mediterranean: Changing your diet to include fruits, vegetables and whole grains every day while limiting processed food will help. Try the Mediterranean diet, which includes these foods and more. "If it comes from a plant, eat it; if it's made in a plant, don't," Jordanhazy said.
Myth No. 5: I don't eat much meat, so I'm OK.
Fact: You might not have a T-bone or ribs every night, but you're probably eating more animal products than you think. Order a buttered bacon, egg and cheese biscuit and that's four animal proteins in one. Add a carton of milk and that's five. "Trying to cut back on animal products can make a big difference," Jordanhazy said. Aim for no more than three to four a day.
Savvy substitutes: Instead of that biscuit, top a slice of whole grain toast with avocado, spinach, egg whites and a drizzle of olive oil.
Instead of PB&J on white bread, spread a piece of whole grain toast with natural peanut or almond butter, add sliced banana and sprinkle on some chia seeds.
Instead of a chef's salad with meats, cheeses, eggs and ranch dressing, whip up a spinach salad with grilled salmon, almonds, strawberries, some feta cheese crumbles and a dressing of olive oil and vinegar.
You'll be doing yourself a favor, Jordanhazy said, if you use a 9-inch plate at mealtime and fill half of it with nonstarchy vegetables (watch out for sneaky starches in potatoes, green peas, corn and beans); a quarter of the plate with protein; and a quarter with carbohydrates or starches. Keep in mind that one serving of meat is 3 to 4 ounces. That's roughly the size of the palm of your hand.
Want to know how your cholesterol stacks up? Novant Health offers community health screenings that include a free cholesterol check and advice. For information, visit NovantHealth.org/RemarkableYou.
About your cholesterol score
The American Heart Association recommends adults 20 and older have their cholesterol checked every four to six years. The blood test will show your cholesterol levels in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL).
Your total cholesterol is the sum of three numbers: HDL (high-density lipoprotein — that's the good stuff); LDL (low-density lipoprotein — the bad stuff); and 20 percent of the triglycerides, or fats, in your blood.
Traditionally, the goal has been a total of 200 mg/dL or less; LDL below 100 mg/dL; HDL of 40 mg/dL or more; and triglycerides of 150 mg/dL.
Today, though, doctors look beyond those numbers to gauge your risk for heart disease and whether you might need medicine to help keep your numbers in balance. They also consider your family history, whether you smoke or are a heavy drinker, are sedentary, overweight or have type 2 diabetes.
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