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

  • 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
  • There has never been any proof that cholesterol in the diet (or fat for that matter) has any effect on cholesterol levels in the body. In fact, studies have shown the opposite. Those put on low fat, low cholesterol diets actually ended up having higher cholesterol than the control groups. I'm disappointed that Sparkpeople didn't do their research with this one. - 10/13/2011 6:24:13 AM
  • "There's no connection whatsoever between cholesterol in food and cholesterol in blood. And we've known that all along. Cholesterol in the diet doesn't matter at all unless you happen to be a chicken or a rabbit." Ancel Keys, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota 1997.

    Ancel Keys, the father of the diet-heart hypothesis and once sat on the board of the American Heart Association, recanted the idea that dietary cholesterol has any bearing on cholesterol in the blood and therefore has no bearing on heart disease.

    Outdated article is outdated. High cholesterol does not always equal heart disease. And high cholesterol does not cause heart disease. High cholesterol itself can be caused by stressful conditions that can cause heart disease like stress, overweight, smoking, poor diet (low nutrient diets with lots of refined carbohydrates and processed vegetable oils). Cholesterol is a vitally important substance in the body, especially for healing, so if you have damaged arteries you're going to find cholesterol. Just like when there's a fire you're going to have fire trucks, but getting rid of the fire trucks doesn't put out fires.

    I recommend everyone read 'The Cholesterol Myths: Exposing the Fallacy That Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Cause Heat Disease' - by Uffe Ravnskov, MD, PhD - 5/30/2011 10:11:14 AM
  • I never knew the connection between high cholesterol and hypothyroidism, but it does make a lot of sense. Thanks! - 5/30/2011 4:10:11 AM
  • Now I know what to do and how to eat. With diabetes, I gotta be extra careful with cholesterol. Thanks Nicole! - 12/20/2010 5:28:39 AM
  • Thanks Nicole, for once I understand my risks. Now it's time for me to take action. - 11/15/2010 2:01:46 PM
  • Noticeably absent is the medically proven fact that undetected, and / or subclinical, hypothyroidism = high cholesterol. When is the last time you had your thyroid checked? - 11/9/2010 9:48:19 PM

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