First, we were taught this: cholesterol is bad, and we want less of it in our hearts and blood vessels. Thus, we’ve been told, we should avoid cholesterol in food, also known as dietary cholesterol.
But was all of that true? Not exactly.
While the longstanding belief was that dietary cholesterol—which comes from meat and animal byproducts—influenced the cholesterol in our blood, research in recent years has revealed that the relationship between dietary and blood cholesterol is significantly less important than we once believed.
Now we know there are two types of cholesterol: the bad kind that builds up low-density lipoproteins (LDL), and the good kind that breaks down those buildups, high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Too much LDL is what we are really worried about—that’s what puts us at risk for heart disease. Dietary cholesterol that we consume, on the other hand, seems to be nearly unrelated to these lipoprotein levels.
So, if dietary cholesterol doesn’t affect our blood cholesterol, what does? As it turns out, research has found that dietary fats have a much more profound impact on blood cholesterol than dietary cholesterol.
Okay—so does that mean we can eat all the dietary cholesterol we want? Not exactly.
First, it depends on who you are. While research has shown that there is not as direct a relationship between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol as once believed, studies have also found that there are great individual differences. That means that in eating dietary cholesterol, you may have some risk of increasing your LDLs. This could be due to genetic differences that create different sensitivity to dietary cholesterol. Increased sensitivity to dietary cholesterols has also been linked to diabetes and hypothyroidism.
Because of this, diabetics and those at-risk for diabetes should consume dietary cholesterol with caution. As for everyone else, it’s not a bad idea to proceed with caution as well, since as of now there is little known about how to predict which individuals will respond heavily to dietary cholesterol and which won’t. However if you wanted to make certain that you aren't hyperactive towards cholesterol you could easily take a 'before and after' lipid panel test to look at how much if any, your blood cholesterol levels rise.
Another reason to stop yourself from digging into high-cholesterol foods is that foods that contain cholesterol also tend to be high in unhealthy fats. Yes—those fats that have been identified as the culprit for high LDLs are often found in processed foods and some animal products that are also heavy in dietary cholesterol. So, while the cholesterol in the food may not affect your LDL or HDL levels, trans fats (think vegetable oils) and some saturated fats certainly do affect blood cholesterol. However these saturated fats raise the good (HDL) cholesterol in your blood.
That means that while you don’t need to panic over every egg that you eat, you should still limit your consumption of unhealthy omega 6 and trans fats and try to optimize you HDL levels while lowering your LDLs. The best way to do that is with a healthy diet—including vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats to balance out all that meat and dairy—and some moderate exercise. Both your heart and your stomach will thank you.