Cholesterol Myths and Facts

Photo of patient and doctor viewing computer screen together

Cholesterol can be confusing! Learn answers to common questions about blood cholesterol.

What do your cholesterol numbers mean? Can the foods you eat change your cholesterol levels? Learn the difference between cholesterol myth and fact. Then commit to getting your cholesterol checked this year so you know your numbers and your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Myth: All cholesterol is bad for you.

Fact: Some types of cholesterol are essential for good health. Your body needs cholesterol to perform important jobs, such as making hormones and building cells. Cholesterol travels through the blood on proteins called lipoproteins. Two types of lipoproteins carry cholesterol throughout the body:

  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein), sometimes called “bad” cholesterol, makes up most of your body’s cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol raise your risk for heart disease and stroke.
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or “good” cholesterol carries cholesterol back to the liver. The liver then flushes it from the body. High levels of HDL cholesterol can lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.

When your body has too much LDL cholesterol, it can build up in the walls of your blood vessels. This buildup is called plaque. As your blood vessels build up plaque over time, the insides of the vessels narrow. This narrowing can restrict and eventually block blood flow to and from your heart and other organs. When blood flow to the heart is blocked, it can cause angina (chest pain) or a heart attack.

Myth: I would be able to feel it if I had high cholesterol.

Fact: High cholesterol usually has no signs or symptoms. You may not know you have unhealthy cholesterol levels until it is too late—when you have a heart attack or stroke. That’s why it’s so important to get your cholesterol levels checked at least every 4 to 6 years. Learn more about getting your cholesterol checked.

Occasionally, some people develop yellowish growths on their skin called xanthomas, which are cholesterol-rich deposits. People with xanthomas may have high cholesterol levels.

Myth: Eating foods with a lot of cholesterol will not make my cholesterol levels go up.

Fact: It can be complicated. We know that foods with a lot of cholesterol usually also have a lot of saturated fat. Saturated fats can make your cholesterol numbers higher, so it’s best to choose foods that are lower in saturated fats. Foods made from animals, including red meat, butter, and cheese, have a lot of saturated fats.

Instead, aim to eat foods with plenty of fiber, such as oatmeal and beans, and healthy unsaturated fats, such as avocados, olive oil, and nuts. Learn more about healthy diet and nutrition at CDC’s nutrition, physical activity, and obesity website.

Photo of laboratory form with blood cholesterol values filled in, stethoscope, and blood collection vials.

Everyone should get their cholesterol levels checked at least every 4 to 6 years. Learn more about getting your cholesterol checked and what the numbers mean.

Myth: I can’t do anything to change my cholesterol levels.

Fact: You can do many things to improve your cholesterol levels and keep them in a healthy range!

  • Get tested every 4 to 6 years (unless told otherwise by your doctor). Learn more about cholesterol screenings.
  • Make healthy food choices. Limit foods high in saturated fats. Choose foods naturally high in fiber and unsaturated fats. Learn more about healthy diet and nutrition at CDC’s nutrition, physical activity, and obesity website.
  • Be active every day. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. Learn more about physical activity basics and tips.
  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco products. Smoking damages your blood vessels, speeds up the hardening of the arteries, and greatly increases your risk for heart disease. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, quitting will lower your risk for heart disease. Learn more about tobacco use and ways to quit at CDC’s smoking and tobacco use website.
  • Talk with your health care provider about ways to manage your cholesterol, and if any medicines are given to you to manage your cholesterol, take them as they are prescribed. Learn more about medicines to lower cholesterol.
  • Know your family history. If your parents or other immediate family members have high cholesterol, you probably should be tested more often. You could have a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH).

Myth: I don’t need statins or other medicines for my cholesterol. I can manage my cholesterol with diet and exercise.

Fact: Although many people can achieve good cholesterol levels by making healthy food choices and getting enough physical activity, some people may also need medicines called statins to lower their cholesterol levels. New guidelinesExternal also suggest other medicines in addition to statins may be needed to help control cholesterol.

People who may need statins or other medicines to manage cholesterol levels include the following:

  • People with FH or people with very high levels of “bad” cholesterol. FH is a genetic condition that causes very high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels beginning at a young age. If left untreated, cholesterol levels will continue to get worse. This greatly raises the risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke at a young age.
  • People with cardiovascular disease (CVD). People with CVD may already have narrowed arteries because of too much plaque. Medicines that lower cholesterol may help reduce the risk for heart attack or stroke.
  • People with diabetes. Type 2 diabetes lowers HDL or “good” cholesterol levels and raises “bad” cholesterol levels. This combination raises your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Other groups of people may also need medicines to manage their cholesterol, including people who have a high risk for CVD. Always talk to your health care provider about the best ways to manage your cholesterol.

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Page last reviewed: February 11, 2019