Cholesterol, Explained: It’s (Sometimes) Good for You, and Doesn’t Come From Exactly Where You Think


“This provides the opportunity to focus on ‘primary prevention,’ or preventing the development of heart disease by making sure that you are following a healthy diet and exercising regularly, as well as maintaining a healthy weight,” says Anne Thorndike, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Metabolic Syndrome Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Several risk factors, including obesity, smoking, and a poor diet can contribute to high cholesterol.

“Our body tightly regulates the amount of cholesterol in the blood by controlling its production. If you eat foods with greater amounts of cholesterol, our body will make less, and vice versa,” Planells said. “So for many people, what you eat will not have an impact, but for others, cholesterol could increase if a person consumes high-cholesterol foods.”

Fried foods, red meat, and baked goods can increase levels of LDL cholesterol, while foods high in fiber—fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, whole grains—can help maintain a good balance of LDL and HDL cholesterol. (Remember, people: balance in all things.) Getting exercise, at least 30 minutes a day, will also help you manage your cholesterol.

“That being said, some people are genetically predisposed to high levels of cholesterol and early heart disease,” says Thorndike, who also serves as volunteer chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee.

What About Statins?

People genetically predisposed to high cholesterol, or people with accompanying risk factors like old age, high blood pressure, and diabetes, might be good candidates for taking drugs that help lower cholesterol. These drugs are known as statins. You know what statins are if you’ve ever seen a commercial for Lipitor while watching football. These drugs work by blocking the production of cholesterol in the body. 

Going on any prescription is a decision that begins with a conversation with your doctor. In addition to discussing your risk factors and getting a measurement of your cholesterol levels, a clinician might also use a calculator that determines your risk for cardiac arrest over the next decade. The calculator also takes into account your age, blood pressure, and whether you smoke or have diabetes. Generally, Thorndike says, a risk score greater than 10% will lead a doctor to recommend a statin.

Knowing about the health of your liver is also crucial, since it’s the liver that breaks down and metabolizes drugs. (You don’t want toxic levels of statins in your blood due to a faulty liver.) But the side effects of statins are rare: Of the millions of people per year who take statins, only a few of them will develop serious complications.

In any event, you’ll want to get exercise and keep a good diet to manage cholesterol. The baked goods or ribeye steak you may cherish can stick around. But maybe think about eating broccoli or rice, too.


The nutrient can be hard to come by, especially during the dark winter. 



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