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Facts about cholesterol

Cholesterol can be confusing. How can you tell bad cholesterol from good cholesterol, and how can you reduce bad cholesterol levels? Get the facts on cholesterol.

Can you burn off cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of lipid, just as fats are. However, unlike fat, cholesterol can't be exercised off, sweated out or burned for energy. It is found only in animal products, including meat, chicken, fish, eggs, organ meats and high-fat dairy products.

Is cholesterol good or bad?

Just as homemade oil-and-vinegar dressing separates into a watery pool with a fat-slick topping, so would fats and cholesterol if they were dumped directly into the blood. To solve this dilemma, the body transports fat and cholesterol by coating them with a water-soluble "bubble" of protein. This protein-fat bubble is called a lipoprotein.

  • Low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) carry cholesterol to the tissues. This is "bad" cholesterol, since high LDL levels are linked to increased risk of heart disease.
  • High-density lipoproteins (HDLs) carry excess cholesterol back to the liver, which processes and excretes the cholesterol. HDLs are "good" cholesterol; the more HDL you have, the lower your risk of developing heart disease.
  • HDLs and LDLs are found only in your blood, not in food.

Test your cholesterol

Your risk of heart disease can be assessed with a blood- cholesterol test. According to expert guidelines:

  • Total cholesterol should be 5.0 mmol/L or less.
  • LDL should be 3.0mmol/L or less after an overnight fast.
  • HDL should be 1.0mmol/L or more.
  • Total cholesterol/HDL ratio should be less than 4.0.

However, if you have heart disease or diabetes total cholesterol and LDL target readings will be lower.

Fat facts

The fats that supply calories, float in your blood and accumulate in your thighs and hips are called triglycerides. They can be saturated or unsaturated, and the unsaturated ones can be either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. For every ounce of triglycerides you eat, you add 250 calories (or 9 calories per gram - the weight of a raisin) to your diet. Only saturated fats increase blood levels of cholesterol and heart-disease risk.

Which fats are saturated?

In general, the harder a fat, the more saturated it is. Beef and dairy fats are mostly saturated fats. Liquid oils are usually unsaturated fats, including monounsaturated fats in olive and canola oils and polyunsaturated fats in safflower, corn, soybean and fish oils. Coconut, palm and palm kernel oils are exceptions to the rule; these liquid vegetable oils are highly saturated fats.

Fear of frying

Eating foods with a lot of saturated fat causes the amount of bad LDLs in your blood to increase while good HDLs decrease, increasing the risk of heart disease. Cut the saturated fat, and your blood- cholesterol levels and your risk of heart disease drop. Your risk of cancer also decreases. A diet with more polyunsaturated fats, rather than saturated fats, lowers total blood-cholesterol levels, but unfortunately also drops HDL levels, so you lose both good and bad cholesterol. Olive oil is another story. This oil lowers total-blood cholesterol and LDL cholesterol without causing HDL levels to drop. By using olive oil, you can decrease your total-cholesterol levels while maintaining your HDL levels, thus decreasing your risk of heart disease. Fish oil also lowers heart-disease risk. Consequently, olive and fish are the oils of choice.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on March 28, 2016

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