Pamela Malo, MHS, RD, Arivale Coach
Cholesterol is something we often assume we need to avoid. But in reality, our bodies’ relationship to cholesterol is much more complex.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a wax-like substance that our bodies use for many things—including making hormones and turning sun exposure on our skin to vitamin D. Though our bodies produce cholesterol naturally, we can also get it from animal-based foods, like meat, eggs, and dairy. There are two kinds of cholesterol, one “good” and one “bad.” We need them both, but an unhealthy imbalance can put your heart health at risk.
Meet LDL, the “Bad” cholesterol.
LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol carries cholesterol to all parts of the body. Some LDL is necessary, but too much can cause our artery walls to build up with excess cholesterol. This, in turn, can lead to coronary artery disease.
We’re most likely to get excess LDL from our diet. Cutting back on foods high in saturated fat, like cheese, full-fat dairy, meat, and coconut oil can all help decrease LDL cholesterol.
It’s not just the amount of LDL cholesterol you have that matters—the size of your LDL particles matters too. Contrary to what you might think, it’s better to have large LDL particles than small ones. Think of it as the difference between balloons and golf balls bouncing around in your arteries. While we all have some small LDL particles, it’s important to keep the average size large and the number of small particles few.
Meet HDL, the “Good” cholesterol.
HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol cleans up after LDL, removing excess cholesterol from the bloodstream and artery walls and flushing it out through the liver. This natural cholesterol recycling process helps prevent heart disease, and high levels of HDL cholesterol in the blood show that it’s working.
Interestingly enough, aerobic exercise helps our bodies make more HDL cholesterol. Also, quitting smoking and losing excess weight have been shown to help increase HDL, in addition to substituting saturated and trans fats with healthy fats, like avocados, nuts, and cold-water fish.
Genetics Impact on Cholesterol
While your lifestyle is key to keeping a healthy balance of HDL and LDL cholesterol, not everything is in your control. Your genetics can also predispose you to unhealthy cholesterol levels.
Both LDL and HDL cholesterol are affected by hundreds of genetic variants … that we know of so far. Scientists suspect there could be many more variants related to cholesterol that have yet to be discovered.
We all have many genetic variants with potential positive or negative effects on our heart health, but individually, each of these variants only has a minor impact. However, when taken together, the impacts of these variants add up, and each person’s potential predisposition can vary greatly. (If you want to learn more about how your genetic makeup can impact your cholesterol and blood pressure, check out this resource from Arivale’s Chief Translational Science Officer, Dr. Jennifer Lovejoy.)
Many people assume that because they are young and a healthy weight, they don’t have to worry about their cholesterol. In reality, unhealthy cholesterol can strike anyone — and can be rooted in more than just poor diet and exercise habits. Knowing your genetic predisposition can help you understand the hand you were dealt, and paired with an actual blood measurement, help you take steps to either maintain or improve your cholesterol levels.