Cholesterol – Are you confused?

By Lynn Roblin MSc.RD.


Few people recognize cholesterol as a natural and essential part of our body. To many, it’s something that should be avoided completely and people go to great lengths to avoid foods that contain it.

But our body needs cholesterol to digest foods, produce hormones and to protect our cells.

Confusion about cholesterol exists because many people don’t realize there is a difference between blood cholesterol and dietary cholesterol.

Blood cholesterol is the cholesterol that circulates in your blood. Most of it – about 80 per cent – is produced by your liver. Dietary cholesterol is the stuff found in foods from animal sources (there is no cholesterol in plant foods). Meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products all provide cholesterol in varying amounts. Only about 20 per cent of the cholesterol in your blood comes from eating foods that contain it.

If you have been told that you have high cholesterol, your health professional is talking about your blood cholesterol levels. These are a concern because they’re a major risk factor for heart disease. If you have high blood cholesterol or have a history of heart disease in your family, reducing your blood cholesterol to a healthy level is important for long-term good health.

Cholesterol from foods is often blamed for high blood cholesterol levels. But for most people, cholesterol from foods has little effect on blood cholesterol levels. Family history, diabetes and thyroid, kidney or liver disease, smoking, lack of exercise, excess body weight and high fat diets are all important factors.

High intakes of fat, especially saturated fat and trans fatty acids, are mainly responsible for increasing total and LDL (bad) blood cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are found mostly in meat, egg yolks, dairy products made from whole milk, and foods that contain hydrogenated fat, including palm or coconut oils.

Trans fats (also called trans fatty acids) are found in foods that contain partially hydrogenated fats such as shortening, some margarine, French fries, doughnuts, breaded and fried chicken and fish, crackers, chips, cookies and bakery products. Trans fats act like saturated fats in our bodies and increase total and LDL blood cholesterol levels but also reduce HDL (good) blood cholesterol levels.

Monounsaturated fats are found mostly in canola, olive and peanut oils and foods made with these oils, nuts and seeds. These fats help decrease total and LDL blood cholesterol.

Polyunsaturated fats are found in oils made from sunflowers, safflowers, corn, soybeans, nuts, flaxseed and sesame seeds. These fats have been found to reduce total and LDL blood cholesterol levels, particularly when eaten as part of a diet that is lower in fat.

The accepted approach for lowering or keeping blood cholesterol levels in a healthy range is to focus on reducing your total fat intake, especially the amount of saturated and trans fat that you eat. Omitting foods simply because they contain cholesterol is not the answer. Dairy products, meat and eggs all contains cholesterol but avoiding these foods could prevent you from getting some of the important nutrients found is these foods such as calcium, protein, iron, zinc or B-vitamins.

Follow these steps to healthier blood cholesterol levels:

  • Exercise regularly. Make higher-fibre foods such as whole grain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables the focus of each meal. Include more meals made with meat alternatives such as beans, peas, lentils and tofu. Choose lower-fat dairy products such as buttermilk, skim milk, 1% milk, and yogurt and cottage cheese made with 1% milk fat or less. Enjoy fish more often, choose lean cuts of meat, have poultry without skins and limit serving sizes to about the size of a deck of cards. Eat foods prepared with little or no extra fat. Have foods containing shortening or partially hydrogenated fats and oils in moderation.
  • Read labels: “Cholesterol-free” foods can still be high in fat. Some examples include potato chips and cookies

Switching to a diet that is lower in fat, higher in fibre and participating in regular physical activity can help keep your blood cholesterol in a healthy range