Do You Need Cholesterol to Be Healthy?

We hear a lot about the dangers of high cholesterol, but can your cholesterol be too low? Do you need to eat a certain amount of cholesterol to stay healthy? Nutrition Diva tells all.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
2-minute read

Q. "Some doctors and nutritionists claim that eating foods with cholesterol is necessary for optimal health.  Would avoiding foods with cholesterol be harmful?"

A. Although we hear a lot (too much?) about the dangers of high cholesterol, very low cholesterol levels can also be an issue. Cholesterol is sort of a Goldilocks situtation: you don't want too much or too little but just enough.  However, that doesn't mean you have to eat a certain amount of cholesterol to stay healthy.

Your body needs cholesterol in order to function. That's why every cell in your body has the capacity to manufacture cholesterol on demand, using carbon as a building block. Seeing as carbon is present in virtually every food, you've always got a ready supply. 

It Doesn't Matter How Much Cholesterol You Eat

If you eat animal products, you also get some cholesterol from the foods you eat. Virtually all animal foods contain some cholesterol; egg yolks, shrimp, fattier cuts of meat, butter, and cheese are particularly rich sources. But your cholesterol doesn't go up and down every day depending on whether or not you had eggs for breakfast.  If you don't eat animal products, you don't get any cholesterol at all from your diet. Yet there are plenty of vegans with high cholesterol levels. 

Eating more saturated fat (whether from plant or animal sources) signals the liver to produce more cholesterol.

That's because most of the cholesterol in your body doesn't come from the foods you eat but from your liver's own cholesterol-making factory. If you eat more dietary cholesterol, your liver produces a bit less. If you eat less dietary cholesterol (or no dietary cholesterol), your liver will make more to compensate. Eating more saturated fat (whether from plant or animal sources) also seems to signal the liver to produce more cholesterol. Certain genetic conditions can also cause the body's cholesterol-regulation mechanisms to malfunction.

Is High Cholesterol Dangerous?

A lot of people argue that high cholesterol is nothing to worry about. And it's true that the links between cholesterol levels and disease risk are complex. It depends a lot, for example, on the breakdown of different types of cholesterol as well as any genetic predisposition you may have. 

These issues are best discussed with your personal physician, who knows your family history and other risk factors. But to answer your question: Avoiding foods that contain cholesterol--in and of itself--is not harmful to your health.

See also: Should You Be Worried About Your Cholesterol? and What is the Difference Between HDL and LDL Cholesterol?


Cholesterol meter image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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