11 Myths About Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fat produced and used by the body and also comes from foods of animal origin. Important numbers to know for monitoring blood cholesterol levels are total cholesterol, HDL or good cholesterol, LDL or bad cholesterol, and triglycerides. The notion that cholesterol has a negative effect on the body is common today, but most of it is not entirely true. Before we get into the myths about cholesterol, it’s important that we get to know it better.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy type of fat, or lipid, which moves throughout your body in your blood. Lipids are substances that do not dissolve in water, so they do not come apart in blood. Your body makes cholesterol, but you can also get it from foods. Cholesterol is only found in foods that come from animals.

Why is cholesterol important to our bodies?

Every cell in the body needs cholesterol, which helps the cell membranes form the layers. These layers protect the contents of the cell by acting as the gatekeeper to what things can enter or leave the cell. It is made by the liver and is also used by the liver to make bile, which helps you digest foods. Cholesterol is also needed to make certain hormones and to produce vitamin D. Your liver makes enough cholesterol to meet your body’s needs for these important functions.

What are the types of cholesterol?

Cholesterol moves throughout the body carried by lipoproteins in the blood. These lipoproteins include: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is one of the two main lipoproteins. LDL is often called “the bad cholesterol.” High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the other main lipoprotein. HDL is often called “the good cholesterol.” Very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) are particles in the blood that carry triglycerides.

What are normal levels of cholesterol?

Normal levels of cholesterol are different depending on your age and sex. These guidelines show desirable total, non-HDL,LDL and HDL levels by age and sex.

Target cholesterol levels by age and sex

Age and sexTotal cholesterolNon-HDL cholesterolLDL cholesterolHDL cholesterol
People aged 19 years
and younger
Less than 170 mg/dLLess than 120 mg/dLLess than 110 mg/dLMore than 45 mg/dL
Men aged 20 years
and older
125 mg/dL to 200 mg/dLLess than 130 mg/dLLess than 100 mg/dL40 mg/dL or higher
Women aged 20 years
and older
125 mg/dL to 200 mg/dLLess than 130 mg/dLLess than 100 mg/dL50 mg/dL or higher

Myth 1: All cholesterol is bad for you.

Some types of cholesterol are essential for good health. Your body needs cholesterol to perform important jobs, such as making hormones and building cells. Cholesterol travels through the blood on proteins called lipoproteins. Two types of lipoproteins carry cholesterol throughout the body:

LDL (low-density lipoprotein), sometimes called “bad” cholesterol, makes up most of your body’s cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol raise your risk for heart disease and stroke.

HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or “good” cholesterol, carries cholesterol back to the liver. The liver then flushes it from the body. High levels of HDL cholesterol can lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.

When your body has too much LDL cholesterol, it can build up in the walls of your blood vessels. This buildup is called plaque. As your blood vessels build up plaque over time, the insides of the vessels narrow. This narrowing can restrict and eventually block blood flow to and from your heart and other organs. When blood flow to the heart is blocked, it can cause angina (chest pain) or a heart attack.

Myth 2: You can feel it if you had high cholesterol.

High cholesterol usually has no signs or symptoms. You may not know you have unhealthy cholesterol levels until it is too late—when you have a heart attack or stroke. That’s why it’s so important to get your cholesterol levels checked at least every 5 years.

Occasionally, some people develop yellowish growths on their skin called xanthomas, which are cholesterol-rich deposits. People with xanthomas may have high cholesterol levels.

Myth 3: You don’t need your cholesterol checked until you’ve reached middle age.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends checking cholesterol levels once between the ages of 9 and 11 years, and again between the ages of 17 and 21 years for children and young adults without other risk factors or a family history of early heart disease. After age 20, your health care professional will recheck your cholesterol and other risk factors every four to six years as long as your risk remains low.

Myth 4: Only overweight and obese people have high cholesterol.

People of any body type can have high cholesterol. Being overweight or obese increases your chances of having high cholesterol, but being thin doesn’t protect you. Regardless of your weight, diet, and level of physical activity, you should have your cholesterol checked on a regular basis.

Myth 5: Having high cholesterol is only a man’s problem.

Although atherosclerosis typically occurs later in women than in men, CVD remains the leading cause of death in women. Health care professionals should consider women-specific conditions, such as premature menopause (less than age 40) and pregnancy-associated conditions, when discussing their cholesterol levels and potential treatment options.

Myth 6: If your health care professional hasn’t mentioned your cholesterol levels, you’re OK.

You can take charge of your health. If you are 20 or older, ask your health care professional to conduct a cholesterol test, assess your risk factors, and determine your risk for heart attack or stroke. If you’re between 20 and 39, your health care professional should assess your lifetime risk. If you’re between 40 and 75, ask your health care professional to assess your 10-year risk. If your risks are high, lifestyle changes and statin medication may help manage your risk.

Myth 7: Your cholesterol level is a result of your diet and physical activity level.

True, diet and physical activity affect your cholesterol, but they are not the only factors. Getting older and being overweight or obese also impact your cholesterol level. Some people are born with high cholesterol that they’ve inherited from their parents. Regardless, it’s very important to eat a heart-healthy diet and get plenty of moderate-intensity physical activity in order to reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke.

Myth 8: Taking cholesterol medicines means you don’t have to make diet and lifestyle changes.

It’s important to take your medicines exactly as they’re prescribed. But the best ways to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke are to eat a heart-healthy diet and include regular physical activity in your weekly routine. Get at least 150 minutes per week of moderateintensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week.

Myth 9: If the Nutrition Label shows no cholesterol, the food is heart healthy.

Many “no cholesterol” or even “low fat” foods are high in other types of “bad” fats, such as saturated and trans fats. Be sure to check the food label for saturated fat, trans fat, and total calories. Also, be aware that the serving size that those numbers are based on may be smaller than the entire package.

Myth 10: Switching from butter to margarine will help lower cholesterol.

Not necessarily. Butter is high in saturated fat and has some trans fat in it, too, but some types of margarine are even higher in both of those types of fat. Liquid margarines and soft margarines in a tub tend to be lower in “bad” fats. Compare labels and choose those with 0 grams of trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label and no hydrogenated oils in the ingredients.

Myth 11: Children don’t need to worry about cholesterol. Children can have high cholesterol levels, just like adults. This is particularly true for children who inherit high cholesterol levels from one or both parents, a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). These children are at high risk for premature heart attack or stroke. Early diagnosis and treatment is critical in these cases.