What causes high cholesterol? Dairy, smoking, genetics, and more
- High cholesterol is associated with a greater risk of heart disease and stroke, so it is important to understand the common causes behind this serious condition.
- Eating a lot of fried foods, fatty meats, and processed foods are among the main dietary culprits of high cholesterol.
- Exercising more regularly can directly benefit your cholesterol and lower the chance of obesity, which is also a factor in high cholesterol.
- This article was reviewed by Nicholas S. Amoroso, MD, Interventional Cardiologist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cholesterol levels should be no higher than 200 mg/dL. Yet, an estimated 95 million US adults have levels higher than 200 mg/dL, and nearly one-third of them have extremely high cholesterol levels beyond 240 mg/dL.
And that’s not good. Because high cholesterol means that plaque is more prone to build up and stick to the artery walls within your heart. The higher your cholesterol levels, the more plaque that’s built up. This can narrow or block these essential blood pathways and helps explain why high cholesterol is associated with a greater risk of heart disease and stroke.
So, for the good of your health, let’s talk about what causes high levels of cholesterol. Ultimately, unhealthy lifestyle choices, genetics, and pre-existing health conditions can all be contributing factors. Here’s what you need to know.
The main causes of high cholesterol
One of the primary causes of high cholesterol is an unhealthy diet, high in saturated and trans fats. Foods that can raise your cholesterol include:
- Deep-fried foods
- Fatty cuts of red meat, sausage, bacon, and hot dogs
- Processed foods like biscuits and white bread
- High-fat dairy products like cheese, milk, and yogurt
- Baked goods like cakes, cookies, brownies, and cupcakes
But an unhealthy diet isn’t the only bad guy. Obesity, lack of exercise, and smoking also lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is the opposite of what keeps you healthy
HDL is generally known as “good cholesterol” because it transports cholesterol throughout the body and back to the liver, where your body breaks it down and gets rid of it. LDL is considered “bad cholesterol” because it contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries. For good health, you’ll want higher levels of HDL and lower levels of LDL.
- Obesity: A 2018 study in the Journal of Clinical Lipidology found that lifestyle changes, including an average 10.5% weight loss, lowered LDL levels for obese people.
- Sedentary lifestyle: A lack of physical activity lowers HDL cholesterol, which keeps it from effectively removing your LDL cholesterol. Walking, jogging, swimming, or biking for 150 minutes each week can raise HDL and lower LDL cholesterol.
- Smoking: “Smoking also plays a huge role,” says Theri Raby, MD, integrative primary care physician and founder of the Raby Institute for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern in Chicago. The chemicals in cigarette smoke kick off an inflammatory response as your body tries to get rid of the toxins, which increases plaque formation in the arteries.
These risk factors can also cause high cholesterol
While you can make key lifestyle changes to avoid high cholesterol, some risk factors are unavoidable: genetics, pre-existing health conditions, and aging.
Inherited high cholesterol is called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), which happens as a result of a defect on chromosome 19. This genetic condition leads to high cholesterol levels from a young age and is most commonly found in people of French Canadian, Ashkenazi Jewish, Lebanese, or Afrikaner descent.
Besides directly inheriting FH, certain diseases like diabetes (type 1 and 2) can predispose you to high cholesterol. Diabetes commonly lowers good cholesterol and raises bad cholesterol, and the condition even has a name: diabetic dyslipidemia.
In a 2016 report in Diabetes Care, researchers analyzed participants with diabetes in three major heart studies, conducted between the 1980s and 2000s. Only 32% of the study participants were at target LDL cholesterol levels, though the ones that were had a 41% lower risk of coronary heart disease.
Cholesterol levels also tend to rise with age. And while young adults may assume they don’t have to worry about heart health, research has found that high cholesterol levels in early adulthood are associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease later in life.
What to do if you have high cholesterol
For people with high cholesterol, lifestyle changes are necessary. Raby says to focus on eating healthy, exercising, managing stress, and quitting tobacco.
In addition to diet and exercise, physicians most commonly prescribe statin drugs, which slow down cholesterol production in the liver and increase cholesterol removal from the blood. Talk to your doctor about this possibility if people in your family have had heart attacks, or required stents or bypass surgery before age 55.
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