Nutrition Articles

What Causes High Cholesterol?

Learn Which Risk Factors You Can Control

Elevated cholesterol levels aren't caused by a high-cholesterol diet alone. The fact is, a combination of factors affect your cholesterol levels. There are two main categories of risks that contribute to high cholesterol—those that you can't change (uncontrollable risks), and those that you can (controllable risks).

Uncontrollable Risk Factors
These variables are out of your control. Although you can't do anything to change them, it's important to know whether you fall into any of these higher-risk categories. How many of these risk factors do you exhibit?
  • Your age. Your risk of developing high cholesterol increases as you age. Men over age 45 and women over 55 are at higher risk than their younger counterparts.
  • Your gender. Overall, men are more prone to high cholesterol than women—until women reach 50 to 55 years of age, that is. Naturally-occurring cholesterol levels in women increase around this age.
  • Your family history. Your family has given you more than your eye color. They've also partly determined your risk for several conditions and diseases. Some people have a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol. Your risk is higher if an immediate family member had high cholesterol and/or its associated problems (like heart disease), especially at a young age (under 55).
  • Your race. Somewhat related to family history, your race can also predetermine part of your cholesterol risk. In the U.S., African Americans, for example, are more likely to develop high cholesterol than Caucasians.
Controllable Risk Factors
Factors that you can control are related to your lifestyle—the choices you make each day about what to eat and whether or not to exercise. These are areas of your life where you can take control to improve your cholesterol levels and enhance your overall health.
  • Your diet. Since your body makes about 80% of its cholesterol, the other 20% comes from the foods you eat. If your diet is high in cholesterol-promoting foods (saturated fat, cholesterol, trans fat) and low in heart-healthy foods (healthy fats, whole grains, fish, fruits and veggies), then your diet is probably contributing to your high cholesterol levels.
  • Your activity level. Inactive people are an increased risk for high cholesterol. Regular exercise naturally decreases the LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in your blood while increasing your HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Exercise does not have to be strenuous to offer benefits.
  • Your weight. Being overweight increases your blood cholesterol levels since your body stores the extra calories you eat as triglycerides. When these triglyceride levels are high, HDL (good) cholesterol levels tend to be low. Losing just 10% of your body weight (if you are overweight), can improve your cholesterol levels.
  • Smoking. Did you know that smoking is the leading preventable cause of heart disease, due to its effects on your arteries, heart, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels? Smoking damages the walls of your arteries and lowers your HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Quitting can stop (and potentially reverse) a lot of the existing damage to your body, and improve your cholesterol.
When you have other existing health conditions, you are compounding your risk of serious complications and disease if you don't lower your cholesterol. Add high risk factors into the picture (family history, age, race) and your risk is compounded even more. The good thing is that you can break that chain of progressive disease at any point by changing what you can control.

Lowering your cholesterol can help improve your health by reducing your risk of heart attack, stroke, and other serious health problems. You should work closely with your doctor to develop a cholesterol-lowering plan that is safe and effective for you. These plans usually involve some combination of dietary changes, regular exercise, medication, and weight loss.

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Member Comments

  • If I didn't "treat myself" to what I believe is so well I would not be 3 out of the 5 controlled risk factors. In the uncontrolled risk factors I am 2 out of 4. I lean back and forth on my numbers but find when I am working out and eating right, I am right where I should be. I don't have high cholesterol but I guess if I didn't have Sparkpeople I probably would?
  • appreciate the information.
  • Mostly useful info but it could do with updating..
  • OK article. Could be better.
    Tbsp ea Apple Cider Vinegar, honey both not refined in glass water daily lowered my cholesterol 40 pts.
  • A ten-year old article needs to be updated...
  • Valid point about this being an old article. It needs to be updated with current info, especially regarding eggs.
  • My grandparents all died of heart disease but they also eat very high cholesterol diets! My blood work shows no trouble!
  • I've changed all my controllable factors but you can't change genetics....I hate that!!!
  • This is one time when I am happy to know I am the exception to the rule-- I eat a very high fat diet--I never limit butter, heavy cream or eggs; I also eat full fat cheeses and yogurt. Since I started doing this my bad cholesterol went down 90 points and my good cholesterol is 68. When I talked to my Dr about this she said there are many people who have similar results. Talk to your Dr about it and find out for yourself.
  • This is a good article but it is 10 years old. There are some other good articles about EGG YOLKS. MY DH was told he had high Cholesterol and do not eat the yolks for many years we did that.


    In the UK they say there is an epidemic with MACULAR DEGENERATION and eat the yolks. So my Brother in UK and my DH in US started to eat those lovely yolks he missed since the Cardiologist said NO EGG YOLKS. MY DH had to give up driving just 25 miles so I had to drive.
    After we both ate the yolks he went to a check up and now he can drive again it is off the license.
    I was always an EGG LOVER and I never stopped eating Fresh eggs.
    I hope the article will be redone with more information I hope. Pat in Maine.
  • Agree there is a too high number but there is a too low. Remember this is the only food our brain consumes. We are starving it! My holistic Dr. said not to do those numbers. People follow the money on who backed those studies!