You know you shouldn’t have too much cholesterol, and yet you likely don’t know what it does exactly. In truth, it services your body in many ways, but too much can be deadly. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute explains it’s a fatty substance in your cells, and it makes hormones and vitamin D; it also helps with digestion.
You may be confused by what you’ve heard, so we debunk the cholesterol myths below. Good news: One common belief about a beloved breakfast food is totally false (see page 9).
1. Myth: Cholesterol medication will kill your sex drive
The reality: Many prescription drugs can interfere with sexual function, but not cholesterol meds.
Taking a prescription to lower cholesterol may improve your sex drive. According to AARP, a study found statins — a med that lowers cholesterol — actually increase erectile function by almost 25%.
Next: The truth about acting your age
2. 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 kids 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: How should you time your cholesterol test?
3. 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: It’s not fun, but you gotta do it.
4. Myth: Checking your cholesterol once a decade is good enough
The reality: Depending on your health, you may need to check your cholesterol more frequently.
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 everyone 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 every five years. If you develop high blood pressure or diabetes, however, you should get an annual cholesterol reading to ensure nothing changes.
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5. Myth: Americans have the highest cholesterol levels worldwide
The reality: High cholesterol levels are a worldwide issue.
You’ve likely heard how processed foods and less movement contribute to American obesity, high blood pressure, and cholesterol rates. But a 2011 study reports Western European countries like Iceland and Germany actually have the highest levels in the world. The U.S. and Canada had surprisingly low levels. Maybe Americans take health more seriously than we thought.
Next: Skinny people aren’t safe.
6. Myth: Only overweight people 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 eat a diet high in saturated and trans fats probably don’t know they’re at risk, so they may not check their cholesterol. Remember, no matter your body type, you should always schedule regular doctor visits.
Next: Don’t let your sex life suffer.
7. Myth: High cholesterol only affects your heart
The reality: High cholesterol can severely impact your sex life.
Fox New explains 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 takes a turn for the worse, check your cholesterol levels.
Next: Are you doomed if you have this?
8. Myth: High cholesterol always leads to heart disease
The reality: High cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease, but there’s no guarantee it will cause you major problems.
You shouldn’t ignore 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. There are many risk factors for heart disease, like your family’s history, high blood pressure, developing diabetes, and smoking.
Next: You don’t have to avoid this delicious breakfast staple!
9. Myth: Eggs are the enemy
The reality: Eggs may protect your heart more than you think.
You’ve heard it before: Eggs will raise your cholesterol, so avoid them. But Harvard 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 says try to keep it to 300 milligrams a day if you’re healthy, or 200 grams if you have heart disease.
Next: Don’t trust food labels with your life.
10. 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 labels advertise food 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 greater effect. Avocados and nuts are also full of fats, but they won’t hurt your cholesterol levels since they’re unsaturated.
Next: Not all the pills you pop are equal.
11. Myth: All cholesterol meds 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 use a cholesterol absorption prohibitor, which prevents the intestines from absorbing the compound. Or, you could take a medication that increases how much cholesterol your body excretes. Your doctor will recommend one, but it’s nice to know your options.
Next: Should you avoid butter like the plague?
12. 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 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: Reconsider your oils.
13. Myth: Coconut oil is a cholesterol-friendly swap for butter
The reality: If you have high cholesterol, you may want to skip coconut oil.
Harvard Health Publications explains coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat. That’s higher than butter, which is about 64% saturated fat, and beef fat, which is 40%. Here’s what’s confusing: Although it’s high in saturated fat, coconut oil proves to improve good cholesterol levels.
The takeaway? To lower your cholesterol, you should use both coconut oil and butter sparingly.
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14. Myth: 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 eating the chicken skin can ruin your low-cholesterol meal. In fact, a leg with skin typically has more fat and cholesterol than a hamburger. So skip the dark meat and skin. Otherwise, you may as well eat a T-bone steak.
Next: Where does cholesterol come from exactly?
15. Myth: All cholesterol comes from 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 produces less when you eat healthy. If high levels run in your family, however, your body may naturally produce more than it needs.
Next: All cholesterol is not created equal.
16. Myth: All cholesterol is bad
The reality: Good cholesterol exists — and it can help your heart.
When you hear “cholesterol,” you may imagine a buttery substance clogging your veins. But the Center for Disease Control says you have two types of cholesterol: HDL and LDL. The former actually absorbs the waxy substance and flushes it out of system. LDL, the vein-blocking plaque, is what your doctor worries about. Raising your HDL levels helps your heart long-term.
Next: Take your meds and you’ll be fine, right?
17. Myth: Disregard your diet if you take cholesterol medication
The reality: Depending solely on cholesterol medication and not eating well or exercising is a mistake.
Medication saves lives, but you must take action in other ways, too. Mayo Clinic says you can keep your cholesterol medication dosage low by losing weight, limiting alcohol, and eating heart-healthy foods. If you take pills without improving other areas, you may have to increase your dosage.
Next: Don’t downplay your concerning cholesterol level.
18. Myth: If high cholesterol is your only health concern, you’re 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.
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19. Myth: High cholesterol can’t be treated with surgery
A study from the University of Iowa found that people who underwent gastric bypass surgery showed “a more than 20 percent decline in LDL (bad) cholesterol levels” within six months of the procedure. The weight loss surgery for the morbidly obese also improved patients’ good (HDL) cholesterol levels.
About 91% of study participants on cholesterol meds no longer needed them six months later. According to the lead study author, Mohammad Jamal, MD, “Bariatric surgery seems to give patients the jumpstart they need.”
Next: Your health can hurt your kids.
20. Myth: You can’t pass high cholesterol to your children
An inherited high-cholesterol condition called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) affects 1 in 400 Americans, according to NYU’s James Underberg, MD. For most people, the genetic condition has no symptoms until they have a heart attack, so Underberg recommends getting screened for it.
If you do have FH, there’s a 50% chance your child will have it. Underberg recommends children who are potentially at risk get tested by the ages of 9-11.