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

  • There is no question genetics play a role in cholesterol. My mom is tiny as can be, eats only healthy foods and appropriate portions yet her cholesterol is off the charts. Her good cholesterol is particularly high so the doctors just monitor it. She doesn't exercise a lot but she has been a nurse for years which inherently keeps people moving.

    I control mine with Simvistatin. I also have hypothyroidism which increases my predisposition to high cholesterol. Eating a healthy diet, exercising and medication are my best controls. Eggs and the like don't directly impact my or my moms cholesterol levels.

    It all boils down to monitoring, eating right and exercise but sometimes you can't beat the genetics without meds. - 11/20/2015 6:02:14 PM
  • I agree with WAPFROCKS, and having read "The Great Cholesterol Myth: Why Lowering Your Cholesterol Won't Prevent Heart Disease" and feel it's required reading for everyone in the field of health and nutrition. The authors' arguments are staggering! - 11/17/2015 9:51:56 AM

    science has now determined that Saturated Fat DOES NOT contribute to high cholesterol. The science was skewed to show a correlation that did not in fact exist. The recommendation now is to eat more "bad fat" food and leave the low fat on the shelf. ie full fat yogurt vs the 0 fat varieties. - 11/17/2015 7:31:36 AM
  • Outdated information, Spark! - 9/17/2015 10:40:26 AM
  • Even the Egg Council agrees that a certain percentage of the population (25%) IS affected by dietary cholesterol and should limit their intake. I'm one of them and so was my Dad. I can't control what my body makes on its own. That's genetic, but I sure don't have to add to it. Those who make pronouncements like "don't worry about dietary cholesterol" are as misleading as those who used to tell us to avoid it entirely. Figure out how YOUR body works. - 9/9/2015 6:58:46 AM
    I had slightly high cholesterol but even changing my diet didnít make a lot of difference.
    My doctor told me that if I couldnít get it down in a month I would have to take statins. I was dreading that as my brother is on them and gets terrible pain.
    Since I started taking the capsules my cholesterol has gone back to normal again. Iím so relieved.

    I ordered them from http://www.lowero - 4/15/2015 10:30:19 AM
  • Seriously, this article needs to be updated. Current studies show diet has little to nothing to do with cholesterol levels. Please Sparkpeople quit with the dietary cholesterol, fat, etc. connection. It looks like you are pandering to monetary interests. - 3/24/2015 8:04:58 AM
    I agree with other people who have commented that there have only been 2 ways my cholesterol has ever been elevated. 1. Hypothyroidism/su
    bclinical as my TSH goes up so does my cholesterol levels and will drop when my dose of thyroid meds has been increased. 2. When I went off low carb eating and added some pasta and breads back into my diet. Eliminated the bread and pasta again and my labs next go where back to good levels. In fact one doctor I had told me that she had never seen such good levels. She kept my thyroid in check and I was eating more low carb. Was easier to keep my weight in check also. - 7/26/2014 5:48:40 PM
    Hi! my name is Lee Garner. I just joined Spark People. I am excited and anxious to get started. I need to lose weight fast because I am experiencing major problems, however I do not know how to get started. For example, how do I find out how many calories I had today? Please help - 2/19/2014 8:31:37 PM
  • Loved the article. - 9/10/2013 5:13:23 PM
  • Great article - 4/24/2013 8:56:48 PM
    I don't think about my cholesterol levels much, to be honest. I enjoyed reading this article. Good information. - 11/26/2011 2:52:46 PM
  • Good to see the comments pointing out - and rightly so - that dietary cholesterol does not equal cholesterol in the blood. Fat in the diet is only bad when paired with sugar and starch. Bacon = good. Donut = bad. Egg = good. Cake = bad.

    It's not likely to be a coincidence that the uptick in obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer's began at the same point in time that processed foods started replacing fats with carbs in order to claim their "low-fat" labels. The lower in fat the diet the higher in carbs. - 11/26/2011 1:40:55 PM
  • Like several others have already commented, A high fat/cholesterol diet appears to have no correlation with increased blood cholesterol levels. More and more evidence is coming out that it is actually carbs that can inflate LDL/triglycerides
    , not fat.

    I'm a reformed "carboholic" and endurance athelete who went from 60%-70% carbs to less than 20%. Over the last six months my HDL has gone from 66 to 85 and triglycerides from 90 to 63. I've always been active and don't have weight issues. The only thing that's changed is the fact that I've cut out nearly all wheat/grains, switched to full fat dairy/yogurt and eliminated almost all processed food. I still eat some fruit but "heathy whole grains" aren't in my pantry anymore.

    For some more info on this check out the movie "Fathead" by Tom Naughton. It's on nexflix streaming. It's a good summary of the increasing evidence that a high cab/low fat diet may be the primary cause of our increasing obesity and diabetes rates. - 11/26/2011 9:07:44 AM
  • Missing in this article: If you become hypothyroid, or if your thyroid medication needs to be adjusted, it will also affect your cholesterol. At a yearly checkup, both my TSH and cholesterol were a little high. An adjustment of my thyroid medication fixed BOTH numbers! - 11/26/2011 8:28:07 AM

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