Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that our body creates to help build cells. It's also important for making hormones and digesting certain foods. All the cholesterol we need is made by the body, but we also get cholesterol from eating animal sources such as egg yolk, meat, cheese and milk.
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Good and Bad Cholesterol
Cholesterol travels through the bloodstream on proteins called lipoproteins. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are referred to as "bad" cholesterol, explains the CDC.
An elevated amount of LDL in the body can begin to build up on the walls of blood vessels in the form of plaque. This creates a smaller path for blood to flow, with the possibility of blocking blood flow to your heart and other organs. Healthy arteries are usually flexible and elastic but can begin to harden due to the buildup of plaque, a condition known as atherosclerosis.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is your "good" cholesterol. These proteins carry cholesterol from other parts of your body and take it back to the liver. From there, the liver removes it completely. When your HDL cholesterol levels are high, they, in turn, lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.
Yes, cholesterol is necessary for life, but the amount in the bloodstream needs to be monitored. Mayo Clinic states that optimal LDL cholesterol levels are below 70 milligrams per deciliter of blood, with "very high" being above 190. Since HDL cholesterol is beneficial, the higher the level the better. Ideally, your HDL cholesterol should be 60 milligrams per deciliter or above.
Milk and Cholesterol
In the past, dietary cholesterol had a bad reputation and was believed to increase blood cholesterol levels and the risk for cardiovascular disease. Additional research, however, showed that this claim was no longer supported. A June 2018 review published in Nutrients found that eating two eggs per day increased both HDL and LDL cholesterol, which left the LDL/HDL ratio constant.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines removed the previous recommendation of dietary cholesterol restriction. What is still advised is to eat as little saturated fat as possible because it's this form of fat that can raise blood cholesterol.
When it comes to milk, saturated fat content can vary. According to the USDA, whole milk has a higher amount of saturated fat (about 5 grams per cup) compared with skim or fat-free milk (0.1 grams per cup). Plant-based milk is another option if you're seeking a low saturated fat milk beverage. Both unsweetened almond milk and non-fat soy milk do not contain saturated fat.
"While no foods need to be avoided, it is recommended to keep saturated fat intake under 10 percent of daily calories," says Anja Grommons, RDN, a clinical dietitian at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan. "If whole milk or whole milk yogurt are items you love, feel free to enjoy them, but keep all things in moderation."
Foods That Help Cholesterol
Diet can play an important role in helping you lower cholesterol. "If you've been diagnosed with elevated cholesterol, it is recommended to opt for foods that are lower in saturated fat and added sugar while choosing foods rich in fiber," says Grommons. "Think fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes."
Fiber does double duty, reducing the risk of heart disease by stopping the absorption of fats and cholesterol, according to the University of Wisconsin (UW). This reduces LDL cholesterol levels and blood sugar spikes as it slows the absorption of sugar from the intestine.
Eating a total of 5 to 10 grams of soluble fiber daily has shown to decrease LDL cholesterol levels by 5 to 10 percent, says UW. It's important to note that fiber should be slowly increased in your diet to prevent gastrointestinal upset. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says women should aim for 25 grams of fiber per day; for men, the daily goal is 38 grams. If your diet has been low in fiber, boost your intake slowly to avoid gas, bloating and constipation, advises the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
And be sure to drink plenty of water with meals, too, because, as ADA explains, fiber needs water to move through the body. According to UW, among the best high-fiber foods that can have a positive effect on cholesterol levels are oats, oatmeal and barley; legumes like beans, lentils and peanuts; flax and chia seeds; and almonds and walnuts.
Is This an Emergency?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Cholesterol”
- Mayo Clinic: “Cholesterol Test”
- Nutrients: “Dietary Cholesterol and the Lack of Evidence in Cardiovascular Disease”
- USDA: “2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans”
- USDA FoodData Central: “Milk, Whole”
- USDA FoodData Central: “Milk, Fat Free”
- Anja Grommons, MA, RDN, clinical dietitian, Bronson Methodist Hospital, Kalamazoo, Michigan
- UW Health: “Using Soluble Fiber Supplements to Reduce LDL Cholesterol”
- USDA FoodData Central: "Almond Milk, Unsweetened"
- American Diabetes Association: "Get to Know Carbs"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Easy Ways to Boost Fiber in Your Daily Diet"