When a new study came out a few months ago stating that high HDL might not directly protect against disease, I paid attention. High HDL cholesterol is often touted as protective against heart disease, while high LDL cholesterol is linked to higher rates of heart disease. So the news that this might not always be true got me thinking about what other cholesterol myths are out there. Here’s what I found, starting with HDL:
Myth #1: Having high HDL (the “good” cholesterol) directly protects you against heart disease.
This one’s a little tricky. Although it’s long been thought that having high HDL is protective, a new study in The Lancet suggests that’s not necessarily the case across the board. The study followed people who had genetic markers for high HDL (and had higher HDL cholesterol), but had other similar risk factors for a heart attack as people without the gene. Although it was thought that having higher HDL would confer a 13% lower risk against a heart attack, researchers found that the higher HDL group didn’t have lower rates of heart disease than people not genetically predisposed to high HDL. That doesn’t mean high HDL isn’t still a good thing—it’s just that why your HDL is high probably makes a difference. Healthy habits, such as exercise and eating enough fiber and healthy monounsaturated fats, happen to raise your HDL and lower your risk of heart disease.
Myth #2: You shouldn’t eat shrimp (and other high-cholesterol foods) if you have high cholesterol.
It used to be, if you had high cholesterol, you were supposed to avoid foods containing dietary cholesterol at all costs. That’s no longer the case. We now know that saturated fat has a bigger impact on raising your cholesterol levels than dietary cholesterol. So it’s fine to eat eggs, shrimp and other cholesterol-containing foods in moderate amounts as part of a healthy diet.
Myth #3: Potato chips contain cholesterol.
Dietary cholesterol comes only from animal foods. Potato chips, along with fruits, vegetables and whole grains, have no cholesterol. However, be sure to check the nutrition facts label on the potato chip bag for saturated fat, which causes your body to produce more cholesterol. Potato chips are also high in calories. Lastly, check the serving size and do the math: if you eat 2 servings' worth, you've taken in double the calories and saturated fat.
Myth #4: Toasted oat cereal is one of the best cholesterol-lowering foods.
You’ve seen the claims on those yellow boxes of Cheerios that this toasted-oat cereal may reduce your cholesterol. And while it’s true that this and other toasted-oat cereals do have some soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol, you can get even higher doses from whole foods like oatmeal, Brussels sprouts, bananas, pears, beans and citrus fruit. By the way, I love this kind of cereal, but make sure to get extra fiber at breakfast by topping it with fruit.
Myth #5: If you’re trying to lower your cholesterol, eat more soy.
Research suggests that soy protein has only a small effect, if any, on lipid levels. The real benefit may be related to the use of soy as a substitute for high-saturated-fat foods. Some research shows that people can lower their cholesterol by eating a diet rich in soy protein, fiber, plant sterols and nuts, such as almonds.
A cholesterol truth to end on: Take actions that naturally lower your LDL and raise your HDL: regular exercise, eating monounsaturated fats (like in olive and canola oil, plus avocados) in place of saturated and trans fats and eating more soluble fiber can all help.