There is a very common myth that eating high-cholesterol foods causes elevated cholesterol.This is 100% myth. We’ve had a misunderstanding of the kinds of foods that drive high cholesterol. We must remember that the cholesterol in our blood is made in the liver, and does NOT come directly from the foods we eat.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol has many vital functions in the body. It is a part of your body’s innate immune system. Cholesterol is a molecule that the body also uses to make hormones. It can turn into cortisol, which is your primary stress hormone. It also turns into progesterone, which helps with sleep. And it becomes estrogen and testosterone in the body as well.
Liver & Gut Microbiome
I’ll reiterate that it’s important to consider that cholesterol is made in the liver. It doesn’t come directly from the cholesterol that you eat.
We DO know that some foods affect your cholesterol and some don’t. Why is this? Foods that have a significant amount of saturated fat, for example, can affect cholesterol in people who have an imbalance of the bad bacteria in their gut. We’ve known for a while, for example, that foods with saturated fat, like red meat, can actually drive heart disease in some people, while in others it doesn’t. It comes back to the bacteria in the gut waiting to digest that food.
Processed foods can also cause toxins, known as LPS (lipopolysaccharides), to cross the gut lining into your liver and make your cholesterol go up.
Elevated cholesterol is an issue of
- Clean eating versus processed foods
- The effect of your food on your gut bacteria and your liver
There is another phenomenon involving red meat and cholesterol that occurs in some people. Red meat has carnitine in it, which is an amino acid. If red meat is eaten by a person with certain bacteria in the GI tract, it creates a molecule called TMAO, which is known to be inflammatory and cause heart disease.
Again, the issue is not the red meat (or other real foods). The issue is the bacteria in the gut.
Processed Foods Drive High Cholesterol
We know that highly-processed foods, especially those with refined grains and highly-processed oils, cause cholesterol to rise into unhealthy ranges. These foods drive your cholesterol due to the effect on your liver. Trans or saturated fats cause elevated cholesterol because they actually gum up the liver, causing your liver to attempt to clean them out. In this process, your liver releases cholesterol.
Many vegetable oils are very toxic and inflammatory. Canola oil, for example, is extracted with hexane, then deodorized. Soybean oil, which is usually from genetically-modified soybeans sprayed with glyphosate, is very inflammatory. These inflammatory oils are a major culprit in elevated cholesterol.
Fried foods are notoriously unhealthy because the oils are generally highly processed to begin with, but then actually sit around for quite some time and become rancid. During this process, they develop trans fats which literally clog the liver. This same concept applies to processed baked goods like doughnuts, cookies, etc. The highly-processed sugars and oils make these detrimental to cholesterol levels.
It’s actually not the food itself, but what’s done to the food that causes it to elevate your cholesterol.
Food Quality is Important
We also know that the quality of our food matters in relation to its effect on cholesterol. For example, if a cow is fed moldy grains, grains sprayed with herbicides, or if the cow was pre-diabetic (which is what the marbling you see in the meat means), then that beef will likely drive your cholesterol.
Let’s talk about eggs! Eggs are actually a superfood and they have many benefits including phosphatidylcholine, which is great for brain function. However, if the chickens that laid the eggs were fed moldy grains, or GMO grains sprayed with glyphosate, then these eggs become inflammatory. It matters what you eat eats.
Full-fat dairy products are another great example. Generally, the milk we buy is homogenized and pasteurized. This process involves forcing water and oil to mix. A result in our GI tract when presented with this homogenized oil and water, is that gut toxins are pulled across the GI tract to the liver, elevating cholesterol. Since yogurt and kefir have healthy bacteria that counteract this effect, they are superfoods and are very healthful foods for most people.
A Note About Microwaves
I’d like to talk for a minute about microwaving food. A microwave actually changes the molecular structure of food. We’ve all seen this process with bread that’s been microwaved. It comes out gooey and doughy, then hardens as it cools. This is because the protein in the bread creates crosslinks and this changes its molecular structure. This exact same thing happens with anything that is microwaved.
What about popcorn? Is popcorn healthy? If you’re going to make popcorn, do it the old-fashioned way. Get out a pan, and put some healthy oil in it. I like to use coconut oil in this case, because it has a higher smoke-point. Add some salt for a tasty treat. Using the microwave almost guarantees the popcorn is going to lose any potential health benefits and contribute to elevated cholesterol.
Foods that Improve Your Cholesterol Profile
We know that healthy fats, omega-3s, fish oil, extra-virgin olive oil, healthy nuts, and fiber can be used to treat high cholesterol.
Extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil are very anti-inflammatory and can help lower your cholesterol. Although coconut oil is healthy, I will give a word of caution as it can elevate cholesterol if done in excess due to the effect of the bacteria in the gut.
Lean, quality meats actually can help lower cholesterol. Grass-fed beef, which has healthy omega-3s, free-range chicken, which has a better nutritional profile, and wild-caught salmon, which is rich in omega-3s, can all have positive impacts on your cholesterol.
Shellfish, if wild-caught or farmed in a healthy way, can actually have a lot of health benefits and not directly elevate your cholesterol. It does matter how it’s cooked, however. If it’s fried in margarine, it will have a detrimental impact, but sautéing it in some natural butter or ghee will preserve its health profile.
Are you interested in learning more about cholesterol and heart health? Check out these related blog posts on our website!
Take care and be well.
Since 2010, Richmond Integrative and Functional Medicine has been helping people to restore their health and hope with an integrative approach to conventional and alternative medicine that’s entirely science-backed. We at RIFM believe everyone is made for health. We offer a comprehensive, in-person patient membership program to ensure you get access to the care you need to thrive.
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