If you’ve been told by a doctor that you have high cholesterol or you know you are predisposed to possibly developing high cholesterol in the future, knowing how to best monitor your body’s cholesterol levels can seem overwhelming at times. But managing your cholesterol levels is vital because having high cholesterol over time may lead to other health complications.
“Cholesterol is a naturally occurring and necessary substance in the body that is used to make cells and regular hormones, among other tasks,” says Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, and consultant for Balance One Supplements. “However, too much cholesterol circulating in the body can be dangerous and puts the individual at risk for heart disease and stroke.”
So what causes high cholesterol? Unfortunately, there are certain unavoidable factors that can play a role in this, such as genetics and age. But research has also found that lifestyle can significantly influence your cholesterol levels, as well.
“It is becoming more clear that genetics play a larger role in how the body processes cholesterol and one’s risk for high cholesterol,” says Best. “Still, there are some dietary habits that can exacerbate or lead to high cholesterol.”
One of the most common myths or misconceptions about cholesterol and food is that the foods higher in cholesterol are what you need to limit. However, dietary cholesterol actually has much less of an impact on your body’s cholesterol levels than people have previously thought. Research from the Mayo Clinic suggests that diets high in saturated and trans fats have more of an impact on your cholesterol than the cholesterol found in food.
Read on to learn more about certain foods that may be secretly raising your cholesterol over time, and for more healthy eating tips, check out 7 Ugly Side Effects of Eating Red Meat Every Day.
Eating fried food on a regular basis will not only increase your fat and calorie consumption; it can also lead to higher cholesterol over time.
“Foods that have been fried are higher in fat than if they had been prepared differently. They often also contain trans fats, which are harmful to heart health,” says Best.
To avoid the added oils that are most often used with frying foods, try grilling or baking your food instead.
Baked goods, especially those that are prepackaged and processed, frequently contain many ingredients that raise your cholesterol levels over time.
“These items are a risk for raising cholesterol mainly for both their fat content and refined carbohydrates,” explains Best. “The type of carbs used can increase triglycerides in the blood and cause inflammation in the body that can ultimately place individuals at risk for artery damage and a greater chance of cholesterol buildup. And the cooking oils used, like butter or shortening, can also raise cholesterol levels in the blood.”
Noticing this combination of refined carbs and unhealthy fats is key. According to the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, one of the biggest factors in your blood cholesterol levels is not the actual cholesterol in your food, but rather stems from a combination of unhealthy fats and carbohydrates.
Processed red meat
Processed meats like sausage, deli meat, and bacon are known for being much higher in saturated fat and sodium than many other types of meat, making them particularly tricky for those watching their cholesterol levels.
According to a study published in Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseasesregular processed meat consumption was associated with a larger risk of elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
In general, research has historically shown that the consistent intake of processed meats can impact your heart health in negative ways beyond just raising your cholesterol levels. For example, a 2021 report published in Critical Reviews in Food Science & Nutrition found that daily consumption of processed meat was associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
BONUS: Excessive alcohol use
Some research has found that light alcohol consumption may benefit your heart health, but regularly drinking alcohol is also connected to the potential escalation of cholesterol levels. Overall, heavy alcohol consumption is one of the main factors in an increased risk of issues that impact cardiovascular health, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease. When drinking alcohol, it’s important to take other lifestyle factors into consideration, like your entire diet and exercise routine, your genetic and medical history, and so forth, to ensure you drink alcohol responsibly and in moderation, if at all.
While it is unlikely that consuming these food and drink items as a one-off treat for a special occasion will not adversely affect your cholesterol straight away, it’s evident that long-term, consistent consumption of these things could raise your cholesterol over time. However, watching and limiting the amount of fried food, processed meats, processed baked goods, and alcohol you have each day can help you keep your cholesterol levels healthy. Combined with other healthy eating habits and regimens conducive to a healthy lifestyle—including regular exercise and following your doctor’s recommendations based on your specific healthcare needs—can positively affect your cholesterol levels as well as your overall health.