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Cholesterol Fact and Fiction

June 1, 2011

Fat, cholesterol, calories, it can all get pretty confusing. Here’s a quiz from WebMD.com to help you figure out if your understanding about cholesterol and heart health is based in fact or fiction. 

Understanding cholesterolFirst, decide if each of the following statements is true or false.

  1. The lower your cholesterol, the lower your risk for heart disease.
  2. If a product's package reads "low cholesterol", it's also low in fat.
  3. The best age to have your cholesterol level checked is 50 because that's the peak age for heart attacks in men.

Okay, let’s discuss. The first one is true, but it’s more complicated than that. Your risk for heart disease is lower when you have low total cholesterol and low LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the fatty substance that is most related to the blocked arteries that cause heart disease.  But your risk for heart disease is actually higher if you have a low HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol level. HDL is the "good" cholesterol -- it helps keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries.

The second statement, like many tricky food labels, is false. A lot of foods marked "low cholesterol" contain oils that may be high in saturated fats, which can make your cholesterol level higher! These fats are also high in calories. Don't confuse cholesterol and fat. Look for foods that are low in cholesterol, fat, and calories. 

Now, in regards to the third statement: because coronary heart disease is a slow, gradual process that probably starts in childhood, it is important that cholesterol levels be checked as early as age 20. If your values are within normal range and you do not have other risk factors for heart disease, you can continue getting tested every five years. If they aren't normal, you should talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes you can make or medication you may need.