True or false:
1. Most people’s blood cholesterol levels rise a lot when they eat a lot of cholesterol.
2. Some foods contain “good” cholesterol, others “bad” cholesterol.
3. Beef contains more cholesterol than chicken.
4. Like the U.S., most countries have set an upper limit for daily cholesterol consumption.
Answers: All are false. To find out why, read on.
Most Americans are watching their cholesterol, as they should be. More are getting tested, and more are successfully treating their undesirable levels (via diet, weight loss and/or drugs) than ever before. But we aren’t necessarily clearer about what it all means. If you’re like most people, you’re tripped up by some fundamental questions, especially about the connection between the cholesterol you eat and that in your bloodstream.
Cholesterol is essential to life—a part of cell membranes, nerve fibers, hormones and other vital substances. A waxy substance classified as a lipid, it’s found in all animals, and thus in all animal products we eat. Though we measure the cholesterol in the blood, it’s actually in all our cells.
Many people think that all the cholesterol in their blood (and elsewhere in the body) comes from the cholesterol they eat, which is called dietary or preformed cholesterol. In fact, most of it is made by our livers. In addition, the average American consumes about 300 milligrams of cholesterol from food every day (the amount in an egg plus five ounces of meat). Excess cholesterol is excreted by the liver, but some is deposited in the walls of your arteries, where it is involved in the formation of plaque, thus contributing to atherosclerosis and possibly heart attack or stroke.
The body makes more than enough cholesterol to meet its needs—you don’t have to eat any to stay healthy. Strict vegetarians eat none and do fine without it.
Fat and cholesterol: fellow travelers
Fat and cholesterol are independent substances. Fat cells contain cholesterol, but no more than other cells do. Thus fatty meat has about as much cholesterol as lean meat does. All meats—beef, pork and poultry, whether lean or fatty—average about 25 milligrams of cholesterol per ounce.