You’ve heard of cholesterol, you know you shouldn’t have too much of it, and yet you likely don’t know what it does exactly. In truth, it services your body in many ways, but too much can create a deadly buildup in your arteries. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute explains it’s a fatty substance found in your cells, and your body uses it to make hormones and vitamin D. It also helps with digestion.
You may be confused by what you’ve heard about cholesterol. Here are the most common myths, including one about a breakfast staple you can finally add back to your diet (No. 10).
1. Myth: If high cholesterol is your only health concern, you’re probably fine
The reality: High cholesterol puts you at an increased risk for heart disease or stroke, despite healthy eating and exercise.
Your doctor says your blood pressure and weight are normal, but one reading is too high — your cholesterol. While you may think this isn’t a big deal, you shouldn’t ignore it. WebMD explains your LDL levels should be below 190, and your HDL levels should be above 40.
Next: There’s a lot more to heart disease than a cholesterol test.
2. Myth: High cholesterol always leads to heart disease
The reality: High cholesterol is one risk factor for heart disease, but there’s no guarantee it will cause you major problems.
You shouldn’t ignore your high cholesterol, but you don’t need to panic according to Healthline. Elevated cholesterol 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, high blood pressure, developing diabetes, and smoking.
Next: Worry about one, forget about the other.
3. Myth: All cholesterol is bad
The reality: Good cholesterol exists! And it can improve your heart health.
When you hear the word “cholesterol,” you likely imagine a buttery substance clogging your veins. But 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, the vein-blocking plaque, is what your doctor worries about. Raising your HDL levels actually helps your heart in the long run.
Next: Your sex life may change, but not the way you think.
4. Myth: Cholesterol medication will kill your sex drive.
The reality: Many prescription drugs can interfere with how you function sexually — but not cholesterol medication.
In fact, taking a prescription to lower cholesterol might improve your sex drive. According to AARP, a study found statins — a medication that lowers cholesterol — actually increase erectile function by almost 25%.
Next: You’re not safe if you’re skinny.
5. Myth: Only overweight people can have high cholesterol
The reality: Thin folks can develop the condition, too.
Being overweight puts you at a greater risk for high cholesterol, but the American Heart Association says your body type isn’t the only indicator of your cholesterol levels. Many thin people who tend to eat a diet high in saturated and trans fats probably aren’t aware they’re at risk, thus they may not check their cholesterol. Remember, no matter your body type, you should always schedule regular doctor visits.
Next: The truth about cholesterol and age
6. Myth: You can only have high cholesterol if you’re older
The reality: Young adults and children deal with this issue, too.
Yes, your cholesterol will likely rise as you age. But kids are more likely to have high cholesterol if they’re genetically predisposed, if they’re obese, or if their diet is full of processed foods, WebMD explains. It’s important for kids to get their levels checked by a doctor if heart disease runs in the family. Then they can get treated early and learn how to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Next: U.S. citizens have a bad health rep.
7. Myth: Americans have the highest cholesterol levels worldwide
The reality: High cholesterol levels are a worldwide issue.
You’ve probably heard how processed foods and less movement contribute to American obesity, high blood pressure, and cholesterol rates. But 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: How often do you really need to get your cholesterol levels checked?
8. Myth: Having your cholesterol checked every decade or so is good enough
The reality: You need to check your cholesterol more frequently than that, depending on your health.
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 check them every five years. If you develop high blood pressure or diabetes, however, you should get an annual cholesterol reading to ensure nothing changes.
Next: Do you know the facts about cholesterol medication?
9. Myth: All cholesterol medications basically do the same thing
The reality: Many types of cholesterol medications exist.
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 may try a cholesterol absorption prohibitor, which prevents the intestines from absorbing the compound. Or, you could be prescribed a medication that increases how much cholesterol your body excretes. Your doctor will recommend one, but it’s nice to know your options.
Next: This food receives mixed reviews from the health community.
10. Myth: Eggs are the enemy
The reality: Eggs may protect your heart more than you think.
You’ve heard this before: Eggs will raise your cholesterol, so leave them out of your diet. But the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health explains one egg contains about 200 milligrams of dietary cholesterol, which isn’t the same thing as the substance in your blood.
In fact, evidence suggests the dietary kind and the cholesterol in your blood are not closely related. Still, the American Heart Association has guidelines: Try to keep it to 300 milligrams a day if you’re healthy, or 200 grams if you have heart disease.
Next: Reconsider the oils you use to cook food.
11. Myth: Coconut oil is a cholesterol-friendly alternative to butter
The reality: If you have high cholesterol, you may want to skip coconut oil.
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 confusing: Although it’s high in saturated fat, coconut oil has also been shown to improve good cholesterol levels.
The takeaway? If you want to lower your cholesterol, you should use both coconut oil and butter sparingly.
Next: Is chicken really the healthiest meat?
12. Myth: You should eat more chicken and less beef if you have high cholesterol
The reality: If you prepare chicken in an unhealthy way, it’s just as bad for you.
You can help keep your cholesterol levels low by grilling chicken. But frying it changes everything. Everyday Health explains you can ruin your low-cholesterol meal in a heartbeat by eating the chicken skin. In fact, a leg with skin typically has more fat and cholesterol than most hamburgers. So skip the dark meat and skin. Otherwise, you may as well eat a T-bone steak (though we advise against this, too).
Next: Where does cholesterol come from exactly?
13. Myth: All the cholesterol in your body comes from your food
The reality: Cholesterol comes from what your body produces, not directly from food.
The American Heart Association says foods like meats, poultry, and full-fat dairy don’t directly become plaque; they trigger your liver to create more cholesterol. But even on a low-cholesterol diet, your body 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: Should you avoid butter like the plague?
14. Myth: Focus on low-fat foods for optimal cholesterol levels
The reality: Your meals can be more flexible than you think.
You don’t have to focus on low-fat everything according to AARP. The fat found in butter, cheese, and meat can clog your arteries and cause heart disease, but it also increases good cholesterol.
Foods low or high in saturated fat can be good or bad — it all depends on which foods you eat. Healthy fats, like nuts and olive oil, can reduce your odds of having a heart attack or stroke. A low-carb diet (avoiding white bread, potatoes, white rice, and sugar) will raise your good cholesterol and reduce triglycerides. Educate yourself on food’s fat content.
Next: How should you time your cholesterol test?
15. Myth: You should fast before taking a cholesterol test
The reality: You can starve or eat normally — it won’t affect your cholesterol test.
AARP notes research finds equally accurate test results for cholesterol whether the patient fasted or not. (Heart disease predictions didn’t vary between fasting and nonfasting people, either.) Dr. Sripal Bangalore of New York University says, “It doesn’t make sense to measure their cholesterol levels when they’re on their best behavior.”
Next: You can’t rely on medication alone.
16. Myth: If you’re on cholesterol medication, you don’t need to worry about your diet
The reality: Depending solely on cholesterol medication and not eating better or exercising is a mistake.
Medication saves lives, no doubt, but you need to take action in other ways, too. Mayo Clinic says you can help keep your cholesterol medication dosage low by losing weight, limiting alcohol, and eating heart-healthy foods. If you just take the pills without improving other areas, you may end up having to increase your dosage.
Next: At what point is the fat content of food hurting your cholesterol?
17. Myth: If a food contains 0 grams of cholesterol, it’s heart-healthy
The reality: Saturated and trans fats primarily raise your cholesterol levels.
Some food labels advertise products as being “cholesterol-free.” But it’s not dietary cholesterol you have to worry about. Berkeley Wellness explains the types of fats you consume (in animal products and 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: Your cholesterol levels can affect you in unexpected ways.
18. Myth: High cholesterol only affects your heart
The reality: 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. High cholesterol can also cause a lack of lubrication in women, which can result in lowered libido and painful intercourse. If your sex life has taken a turn for the worse, get your cholesterol levels checked.