Cholesterol has gotten a bad reputation as a substance whose presence can lead to heart disease – but this is only partly true. The reality is that cholesterol is actually necessary for healthy functioning, but what kind and how much does matter. The body makes some of the cholesterol that we need, and we also derive some from our diet.

What is Cholesterol? What Types of Cholesterol Are Considered Good or Beneficial? What Types Are Bad or Harmful?

A waxy substance, cholesterol comes in two types: LDLs and HDLs. The last “L” in both of these stands for “lipoproteins,” which function as carriers that move the cholesterol throughout the body (they also carry other fats as well). The first two letters in each of the above-mentioned abbreviations stand for “low-density” and “high-density,” respectively. LDLs are the “bad” type of cholesterol and HDLs are the “good” kind. Some people carry a variation of LDLs called Lp(a) cholesterol that is believed to increase fatty deposits, but needs more research.

What Does Cholesterol Do For the Body?

The body uses cholesterol to produce some hormones, make cell membranes, and assist with some body functions. Research has shown that having a lot of “good” cholesterol is protective against the development of heart disease and heart attacks. The reasons for this are not fully understood. However, some researchers believe that HDL has the tendency to move cholesterol to the liver (away from arteries). The liver processes it and excretes it from the body. Others think that HDL may also keep cholesterol from building up in a person’s arteries.

How Can It Damage the Body?

The arteries carry supplies of oxygen-rich blood and nutrients to the body’s organs. LDL cholesterol can attach to the arterial walls. Over time, the LDLs may merge with other substances, producing a hard deposit known as plaque. As the plaque increases, the space for the blood to travel through the arteries becomes narrower and the arteries themselves lose some of their flexibility. The medical term for this condition is atherosclerosis. In a patient with this condition, a blood clot can be fatal; it may block the already thin passage in the artery, resulting in a stroke or heart attack.

What Foods Contain Cholesterol?

The only foods that do not contain cholesterol are plant foods (vegetables, grains, and fruits). However, when selecting foods for cholesterol content, also be aware that you should avoid trans fat and saturated fat, which can actually increase the body’s cholesterol production. All animal products contain varying amounts of cholesterol. It is important to simply limit your average daily intake of cholesterol to about 200 to 300 mg, which is the advice of the American Heart Association.

What Puts Someone at Risk for High Cholesterol?

Some people may develop high cholesterol if they have a genetic predisposition. Others may increase bad cholesterol levels by eating a diet high in saturated and trans fats. Choosing foods that will not raise cholesterol levels is important for everyone, even people who do not have a family history of high cholesterol.