Cholesterol is one of the most well-known, yet misunderstood, compounds found in the body. One of the biggest misconceptions is that all cholesterol is bad. The truth is that your body would fall apart without this critical component, which is essential for making cell membranes and hormones.

What’s important to know is that there is a difference between what’s commonly referred to as “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol.”

Cholesterol travels through your body’s bloodstream on two different types of lipoproteins – particles made of protein and fat. The types are:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): This is the so-called bad cholesterol. When your body has too much of it, it can create dangerous buildup (plaque) on the walls of your blood vessels. Over time, this blockage can cause chest pain, heart attacks and strokes.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL): This good cholesterol transports cholesterol back to the liver, where it can be eliminated from your body. High levels of this material can help lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the other common misconceptions and myths about cholesterol.

1.     If I had high cholesterol, I would know it

The reality is that high cholesterol fits into the category of disorders and conditions referred to as “silent.” Particularly in the early stages, high cholesterol offers no noticeable symptoms. Waiting for your body to tell you that you have high cholesterol can be dangerous, since it may announce itself through a heart attack, chest pain, stroke or diabetes. Only a blood test can tell if you have cholesterol issues.

2.     I can’t do anything to lower my cholesterol

Fortunately, there are a lot of things you can do to improve your cholesterol levels. The first options are diet and exercise, followed by medication. Making better diet choices, in particular, can both lower your bad cholesterol and raise your good cholesterol. You should cut back on foods that are high in saturated fats, dietary cholesterol, salt, refined grains and ultra-processed food. Instead, choose foods that are naturally high in fiber and unsaturated fats, such as fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, plant protein and fatty fish.

I don’t need medication. I can fix my cholesterol with diet and exercise

For some people, diet and exercise are all that’s needed to keep cholesterol levels under control. It’s not uncommon to see people make dramatic improvements in this manner. But for some people, lifestyle modification won’t be enough. There are some communities and populations, for example, that are genetically predisposed to high cholesterol.  But also, if you have other medical conditions (including diabetes and cardiovascular disease) may need medication to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

3.     I’m not overweight, so I can’t have high cholesterol

Obesity is one of the top risk factors for high cholesterol. But even if you are fit and athletic, high cholesterol is still a possibility. That’s because high cholesterol can have a genetic component. It may simply run in your family.

4.     Only men need to worry about their cholesterol levels

Everyone has the potential to be affected by high cholesterol. Women may have some advantages over men earlier in life. But after the onset of menopause, hormonal changes alter the equation significantly. Many women, at this point, find that their good cholesterol levels fall, while their bad cholesterol numbers may increase.

5.     I’m under 40, so there’s no reason to get my cholesterol checked

There may be some debate about exactly when to start getting your cholesterol checked. But the American Heart Association recommends starting at age 20 and following up every four to six years. Screening should begin even earlier if you have a family history of high cholesterol. Unfortunately, younger people are getting sicker earlier than they used to – probably because of diet and lack of exercise.

6.     I’m taking statins to lower my cholesterol, so I can eat whatever I want

Regardless of whether you are taking medications, there is no excuse to skip lifestyle changes to improve your overall health! Among the problems that come with an unchecked diet is weight gain, which can lead to other problems, including diabetes and heart disease.