Explainer: What causes high cholesterol?

Explainer: What causes high cholesterol?

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Cutting down on the consumption of processed foods and processed meats, such as sausages, bacon and hot dogs, can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels.

A recent report by the World Health Organization, conducted in partnership with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, has highlighted a substantial increase in the consumption of highly processed foods in India during the past decade. Even though cholesterol levels are not entirely dependent on dietary intake, changing certain food habits can aid in reducing cholesterol levels. 

Cutting down on the consumption of processed foods, such as sugary drinks, fast food, fried foods, frozen meals, and processed meats, such as sausages, bacon, and hot dogs, can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Adopting a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, while cutting down on saturated and trans fats is the key. 

Studies suggest that consuming plant-based diets can lower total cholesterol, reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and elevate high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. HDL, also known as “good” cholesterol, helps keep the arteries healthy and removes “bad” cholesterol, also known as LDL, which can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries.

A common myth is that only men are susceptible to high cholesterol. Scientific evidence shows that women are at risk too. However, due to ignorance, their condition is often undiagnosed. An interesting research from the National Institutes of Health in the US found that accurate cholesterol assessment is affected by fluctuations in women’s estrogen levels that change during their monthly cycle as well as during menopause when estrogen levels are depleted.

Another myth is that only overweight individuals can have high cholesterol. While overweight people are more likely to have high levels of cholesterol, it’s important to note that cholesterol levels depend on myriad factors, such as family history, lifestyle, smoking, alcohol consumption, and food habits. Regular physical activity can play a preventive role in maintaining good health.

The most damaging myth, perhaps, is about the use of statins for managing cholesterol. Despite scientific evidence to prove its efficacy, several individuals are wary of adopting this treatment. “Statins are wonder drugs that protect people from stroke and heart attacks with minimal side effects and are well tolerated,” says Dr Aditya Gautam, an endocrinologist practising in Guwahati, India. 

“Apart from directly reducing cholesterol, it also independently exerts a protective effect on the heart and blood vessels to prevent blockage. Cholesterol levels are often genetically influenced, with familial hypercholesterolemia being one of the most commonly inherited genetic disorders in the world,” he further explains. 

High cholesterol (total blood cholesterol ≥ 200 mg/dL) puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke, among other health challenges. It often shows no signs or symptoms; the only way to know is to get your cholesterol checked.