Approximately one in every six adults-16.3% of the United States adult population-has high total cholesterol, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Despite the prevalence of this condition, many people are misinformed about the truth behind both the diagnosis and prevention of this damaging disease. Sue Makowski, MEd, RD, a clinical dietitian at Rhode Island Hospital, helps debunk some of the most common cholesterol myths.
Myth One: All cholesterol is bad.
Though high amounts of cholesterol will cause a build up on artery walls, cholesterol does have a vital function in our bodies. Natural cholesterol is produced mainly by our livers, and is integral in the creation of bile salts, hormones and vitamin D.
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL), carry cholesterol from the liver to places that have been damaged, often the arteries and the heart, where it can be deposited on the artery walls and form plaques. An excess of cholesterol on the artery walls narrows the arteries and may eventually block blood flow. Because of this, LDL is often called the "bad" cholesterol.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) carry excess cholesterol back into the liver to be excreted and can remove some of the cholesterol already attached to the artery walls. Because of this, HDL is often called the "good" cholesterol.
LDL levels greater than 130 milligrams per deciliter are considered high, while HDL levels greater than 60 milligrams are desirable.
Myth Two: Skinny people don't have high cholesterol.
Appearances can be deceiving when it comes to diagnosing a cholesterol problem. While a person may not appear to be unhealthy on the outside, what is happening on the inside can often tell a very different story. People who are overweight are more likely to have high cholesterol, but weight is not the only contributing factor. Lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise, stress levels and certain medications, as well as predetermined factors like age, gender, illness and heredity, also play a part in a person's cholesterol level.
Regardless of outward appearance, eating a heart healthy diet is key to keeping cholesterol levels down. "An individual should eat a heart-healthy diet that is reduced in saturated fat and trans fat," says Makowski. "Heart-healthy fats, by contrast, are good for you. You can find these in monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and in in food that is rich in omega 3 such as salmon, as well as ground flaxseed and walnuts. Non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and tomatoes are also wonderful choices. The dietary benefits of soluble fiber found in beans, oats and fruits are a natural way to help lower cholesterol."
Myth Three: Kids can't have high cholesterol.
Although high cholesterol may commonly be seen as a disease of middle age, sometimes children are also at risk. With increased instances of childhood obesity in recent years, more kids are laying the groundwork for high cholesterol later on in life. In July 2008 the American Academy of Pediatrics made new recommendations for cholesterol screening in children, advising that children who have high blood pressure, are overweight, or have a family history of heart disease have their cholesterol tested when they are as young as two years old.
Myth Four: Eating eggs will automatically raise your cholesterol level.
Though egg yolks have the most concentrated amount of cholesterol of any food, 213 milligrams per egg, they do not pose a health risk if eaten in moderation, sneaking in just below the Food and Drug Administration's recommended 300 milligrams per day.
"Folks diagnosed with high cholesterol often tell me, 'I'll just cut down on my cholesterol intake.' I then say, 'What does that mean to you?' Many people think, mistakenly, that simply cutting out eggs will help achieve low cholesterol," says Makowski. "Studies have shown that most individuals (those who do not have high cholesterol or diabetes) can eat one egg per day, and even those with high cholesterol can eat three egg yolks per week."
In fact, eggs are a great source of nutrients, very low in saturated fat at only 1.6 grams, and very high in protein, providing 11% of your daily needs.
Myth Five: If I had high cholesterol, I'd know.
High cholesterol can often go undiagnosed in the absence of a blood test, since it does not usually produce obvious symptoms. "High cholesterol is very often a silent disease, similar to high blood pressure. Most people do not believe that high cholesterol is a problem for them, until their doctor tells them that it is," says Makowski.
If a patient develops atherosclerosis, a narrowing of the arteries brought on by excess cholesterol build-up, these symptoms may indicate high cholesterol, though unfortunately it is often too late. Atherosclerosis, if left untreated, can cause angina, heart attacks and stroke.
Education is an important part of both prevention and recovery. "Reputable sources of good health information include the National Institute of Health, the American Dietetic Association. and the American Heart Association," says Makowski. "When it comes to your health, never get your information from an unauthorized source because that is where myths begin in the first place!"
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