A Primary Care Physician Explains High Cholesterol Myths and Facts

If you don't watch what you eat, it can be easy to accumulate high cholesterol. There are a lot of myths about cholesterol that San Francisco primary care physician Dr. Payal Bhandari wants to clear up so that more people can take a proactive approach to their health.

First, it’s important to know that cholesterol itself is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a natural part of your body that is found in every one of your cells. It is oil-based and has a waxy fat-like appearance. Cholesterol is essential for the natural function of the body and blood acts as a vehicle to carry it around in the body. Cholesterol that is made naturally in the liver is called blood cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol is found in saturated foods such as beef, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Whether you have high cholesterol or not, it is essential to understand this natural body process so you can have a proactive approach to how it affects your daily health.

Primary Care Physician Dr. Payal Bhandari explains 5 high cholesterol myths and facts:

Myth #1: Young people do not need to worry about high cholesterol.

If your body is healthy and functioning normally, when you eat foods with high cholesterol, it can usually get rid of the excess. However, your genes affect how much your body can naturally get rid of. It has generally been assumed that cholesterol levels were insignificant during young adulthood, however, a recent study by researchers at the University of San Francisco suggests otherwise.

Fact: People should be monitoring their cholesterol intake at a younger age.

A recent study by UCSF researchers found that young people with even modestly elevated cholesterol levels are more likely to develop coronary artery calcium and atherosclerosis later in life. In particular, they found that young individuals exposed to higher levels of bad cholesterol or lower levels of good cholesterol during young adulthood were more likely to develop coronary calcium. A majority of the young adults showed cholesterol levels associated with damage to coronary arteries which can accumulate over time.

Thinking about cholesterol at a younger age is vital for taking a proactive approach to your health and preventing heart disease and stroke later in life. If you are over the age of 20, the American Heart Association recommends having your cholesterol levels checked every 4 to 6 years. If you have an increased risk for high cholesterol, your levels should be checked more often.

Myth #2: It’s only bad if you have high cholesterol.

High cholesterol comes with its own risks, but it’s more complex than that. Your body needs to balance the cholesterol it produces and consumes.

Fact: Having low cholesterol also has negative impact on your health.

Having a low cholesterol means your body could be functioning poorly and at risk for disease. You need to maintain healthy cholesterol levels in order for your body to function optimally. Cholesterol has four primary functions which the body cannot live without: to make cell membranes, produce vitamin D, produce hormones like testosterone and estrogen, and to make digestive bile acids in the intestine which are critical for fat metabolism.

Furthermore, people with low levels of good cholesterol tend to have other problems closely linked to higher cardiovascular risk, such as being overweight and having diabetes.

Myth #3: You should avoid eating foods with high cholesterol.

It is true that food has an impact on our cholesterol levels, but you can follow a low-cholesterol diet and still have high cholesterol. There are other factors that determine cholesterol levels and health risks.

Fact: Cholesterol levels are not only affected by what we eat.

There are two different kinds of cholesterol. One helps your body function healthily and the other can put your health at risk. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad cholesterol” as it causes plaque build-up in the arteries and increases the risk of stroke and heart disease. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the “good cholesterol” that protects the arteries by lowering the amount of plaque in the bloodstream.

Myth #4: Eating more cholesterol-free food is good for lowering your cholesterol.

Through marketing and packaging, people are led to believe that eating more cholesterol-free food is good for lowering your cholesterol. However, many processed foods, fried foods, and commercially baked goods contain trans fats. The label may say the food contains no cholesterol content, but that doesn't mean it won't raise your cholesterol levels.

Fact: Different foods can lower your cholesterol levels in different ways.

Even if the food is considered to be “cholesterol-free,” it is important to know that trans fats, along with saturated fats, can raise your body’s cholesterol levels. On the other hand, there are some foods that can in fact prevent your body from absorbing cholesterol. For example, soluble fiber binds to cholesterol in the digestive system and expels them from the body before they get into circulation. Foods high in monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids can directly lower your LDL (bad cholesterol) levels.

Some healthy foods that help lower cholesterol include oats, barley, whole grains, beans, eggplant, okra, apples, grapes, strawberries, citrus fruits, nuts (walnuts, flax, chia seeds), soy, avocado, flax seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel).

Myth #5: High cholesterol is mostly a problem with diet.

Although high cholesterol can be caused by your diet, there are many other factors.

Fact: There are many factors that cause high cholesterol risks.
Genes play an important role in cholesterol and tailoring your diet to suit your body’s needs is essential. Here is a list of other factors that can cause high cholesterol:

Understanding High Cholesterol Myths and Facts with Integrative Medicine

There are a lot of health myths out there and we are determined to help explain them! We hope this list gives you a better understanding about cholesterol and how it affects your long-term health. 31.7% of Americans have high bad cholesterol levels, and less than half of those adults are getting treatment to lower their levels. People with high total cholesterol have twice the risk for heart disease than people with optimal levels.

Integrative medicine looks at your health as a whole and treats each person as an individual. Preventing high cholesterol requires an understanding not just of medicine and nutrition but of the unique needs of each patient.

Should you still have any questions about the different kinds of cholesterol and what a healthy diet looks like, contact Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. As a primary care physician who specializes in integrative medicine, she can determine the best course of action for you if you are struggling with high cholesterol levels. She can also create a nutrition plan and determine lifestyle needs in order to prevent high cholesterol levels from happening.

Dr. Payal Bhandari Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. is a leading practitioner of integrative and functional medicine in San Francisco.

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