Ah, cholesterol — you’ve heard of it, you know you shouldn’t have too much of it, and yet you likely still don’t know what it does or why it exists. In truth, it services your body in many ways. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute explains it’s a fatty substance found in all of your cells, and your body uses it to make hormones and vitamin D. It also helps with digestion. When you have too much, however, it can cause a deadly buildup in your arteries. You may be confused by what you’ve heard about cholesterol, so here are the most common myths you really need to stop believing.
Myth No. 1: High cholesterol always leads to heart disease
You shouldn’t ignore your high cholesterol, but that also doesn’t mean you should panic. Healthline explains elevated cholesterol is one risk factor for heart disease, but there’s no guarantee it will cause you major problems. It just means you have a higher chance of developing issues later on. There are many risk factors for heart disease, like your family’s history, having high blood pressure, developing diabetes, and smoking.
Next: You can’t rely on medication alone.
Myth No. 2: If you’re on cholesterol medication, you don’t need to worry about your diet
Medication saves lives, no doubt. But depending solely on cholesterol medication and not improving your diet or exercise routine is a serious mistake. Mayo Clinic says you can help keep your cholesterol medication dosage low by losing weight, limiting alcohol consumption, and eating foods known to be good for your heart. If you just take the pills without doing any of the other work, you could end up having to increase your dosage.
Next: Is chicken really the healthiest meat?
Myth No. 3: You should eat more chicken and less beef if you have high cholesterol
When it comes to meat, chicken is healthier, right? You can help keep your cholesterol levels low by cooking it on the grill. As soon as you bread and fry that chicken, however, matters change. Everyday Health explains you can ruin your low-cholesterol meal in a heartbeat by eating the chicken skin. In fact, a leg with the skin typically has more fat and cholesterol than most hamburgers. Do yourself a favor and skip the dark meat and skin of the chicken. Otherwise, you might as well eat that T-bone steak (though we advise against this, too).
Next: Not all cholesterol medications are equal.
Myth No. 4: All cholesterol medications basically do the same thing
You might not realize this, but there are many different types of cholesterol medications. Statins, a popular type, prevent the liver from creating cholesterol in the first place, the American Heart Association explains. But if you’re pregnant or have liver problems, you shouldn’t take these. Instead, you might try a cholesterol absorption prohibitor, which prevents the intestines from absorbing the compound. Or, you could be prescribed another type of medication that increases how much cholesterol your body excretes. Your doctor will have one they recommend over others, but it’s nice to know your options.
Next: Reconsider the oils you use to cook food.
Myth No. 5: Coconut oil is a cholesterol-friendly alternative to butter
Coconut oil is a hot trend among health nuts — but if you deal with high cholesterol, you might want to skip it. Walter C. Willett, M.D., tells Harvard Health Publications coconut oil is actually about 90% saturated fat. That’s even higher than butter, which is about 64% saturated fat, and beef fat, which is 40%. Here’s where things get interesting: Though it’s high in the saturated department, coconut oil has also been shown to improve good cholesterol levels.
The takeaway? If you want to lower your cholesterol, you still should use both coconut oil and butter sparingly.
Next: “Skinny” people can have high cholesterol, too.
Myth No. 6: Only overweight people can have high cholesterol
Being overweight does put you at a greater risk for having high cholesterol, but thin folks can still develop this condition. The American Heart Association says your body type isn’t the only indicator of your cholesterol levels. In fact, many thin people who tend to eat a diet high in saturated and trans fats probably aren’t aware they’re putting themselves at risk, thus they may not get their cholesterol checked. Remember, no matter your body type, you should always schedule regular doctor visits.
Next: U.S. citizens have a bad rep.
Myth No. 7: Americans have the highest cholesterol levels worldwide
You’ve probably heard how processed foods and less movement are contributing to American obesity, high blood pressure, and cholesterol rates. But it’s important to note high cholesterol levels aren’t just an American problem; they’re a worldwide issue. One 2011 study reports Western European countries such as Greenland, Iceland, and Germany actually have the highest levels in the world. The U.S. and Canada had surprisingly low levels. Maybe Americans take their health more seriously than we thought.
Next: This food receives mixed reviews from the health community.
Myth No. 8: Eggs are the enemy
You’ve heard this before: Eggs will raise your cholesterol, so leave them out of your diet. But eggs might protect your heart more than you think. Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health explains one egg contains about 200 milligrams of dietary cholesterol, but that’s not the same thing as the substance in your blood. In fact, quite a bit of evidence suggests the dietary kind and the cholesterol in your blood are not closely related. Still, the American Heart Association does have a few guidelines: Try to keep it to 300 milligrams a day if you’re healthy, or 200 grams if you have heart disease.
Next: The fat content of food is more important than the cholesterol.
Myth No. 9: If a food contains 0 grams of cholesterol, it’s heart-healthy
You’ve likely seen a food label advertising a product as being cholesterol-free. That means it’s healthy, right? Actually, it’s not the dietary cholesterol you have to worry about; it’s the saturated and trans fats that primarily raise your levels. Berkeley Wellness explains the types of fats you consume (like the fats in animal products and many processed foods) will have a much greater effect. Avocados and nuts are also full of fats, but they won’t hurt your cholesterol levels since they’re unsaturated.
Next: The truth about cholesterol and age
Myth No. 10: You can only have high cholesterol if you’re older
Yes, your cholesterol is likely to rise as you get older. But that doesn’t mean young adults and children don’t deal with this issue as well. Children are more likely to have high cholesterol if they’re genetically predisposed, if they’re obese, or if their diet is full of highly processed foods, WebMD explains. It’s important for kids to get their levels checked by a doctor if any type of heart disease runs in the family, too. They can then get treated early and learn habits to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Next: Dietary cholesterol isn’t the same as what’s in your body.
Myth No. 11: All the cholesterol in your body comes from your food
Maybe your doctor mentioned you should lower your cholesterol. You may think this is purely due to the fact you eat foods that raise your levels. But cholesterol comes from what your body produces, says the American Heart Association. Foods like meats, poultry, and full-fat dairy don’t just directly become plaque — they trigger your liver to create more cholesterol. But even on a low-cholesterol diet, your body still produces the substance. It just (in most cases) produces less when you eat healthy. If high levels run in your family, however, your body might naturally produce more than it needs.
Next: Don’t ignore your high cholesterol reading.
Myth No. 12: If high cholesterol is your only health concern, you’re probably fine
You visited the doctor and found your blood pressure and weight are all perfectly normal, but one reading is too high — your cholesterol. While you might think this isn’t a huge deal, you really shouldn’t ignore it. WebMD explains having high cholesterol automatically puts you at an increased risk for heart disease or stroke, despite your healthy eating and exercise regimen. Your LDL levels should be below 190, and your HDL levels should be above 40.
Next: How often you really need to get your cholesterol levels checked
Myth No. 13: Having your cholesterol checked every decade or so is good enough
Don’t get too excited just because you checked your cholesterol levels 10 years ago. Randy Wexler, M.D., tells Men’s Health he recommends all of his patients get a baseline reading by the time they’re 35 years old — earlier if they have a family history of heart disease. If your levels are normal at 35, Wexler says you should still get them checked every five years. If you develop high blood pressure or diabetes as you age, however, make sure to get an annual cholesterol reading to ensure nothing changes for the worse.
Next: Your cholesterol levels can affect you in unexpected ways.
Myth No. 14: High cholesterol only affects your heart
High cholesterol can severely impact your sex life. Dr. Michael Krychman tells Fox News elevated cholesterol levels can clog blood vessels near your pelvic area, leading to less blood flow and erectile dysfunction for men. And they aren’t the only ones affected; high cholesterol can cause a lack of lubrication in women, which can result in lowered libido and painful intercourse. If your sex life has taken a sudden turn for the worse, getting your cholesterol levels checked may be worth your while.
Next: Some cholesterol is actually good for you.
Myth No. 15: All cholesterol is bad
When you hear the word “cholesterol,” you probably imagine a buttery substance clogging your veins. In some cases, you’re not wrong. But good cholesterol can actually help protect your heart and arteries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains you have two types of cholesterol: HDL and LDL. The former actually absorbs the waxy substance that clogs your arteries and flushes it from your system. LDL is what your doctor worries about. This makes up the vein-blocking plaque that can give you problems. Raising your HDL levels actually helps your heart in the long run.