Cholesterol in food is linked to cholesterol in the body

11 October 2023
What was claimed

Dietary cholesterol does not affect bodily cholesterol.

Our verdict

The amount of cholesterol in someone's diet does have some effect on the levels of cholesterol in their blood, and for some people this effect will be very significant.

What was claimed

Carbohydrates and low fat foods are the cause of problems with cholesterol.

Our verdict

Diets high in saturated fat lead to raised levels of cholesterol.

A video posted to Facebook and Instagram from a personal fitness account makes claims about cholesterol and diet that are misleading. The post claims dietary cholesterol does not affect bodily cholesterol and that carbohydrates and low fat foods are the cause of problems with cholesterol levels.

But cholesterol in food does have an effect on the level in the body, and for some people this effect is very pronounced. The implication that carbohydrate is mainly responsible for raised cholesterol levels is also incorrect.

Full Fact contacted the page that posted the video, Mind over Matter Nutrition & Fitness. They told us they stand by the claims. 

Bad information about food and health can cause harm by confusing people about the causes of diseases and undermining public health messaging and medical professionals. We have previously written about incorrect information about cholesterol as well as other claims around diets and food.

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Cholesterol is a fatty compound found in animal food products

The video is correct in saying that cholesterol is “essential for hormone production, cell membranes and production of vitamin D within the body” and that the liver produces it from fats. 

Cholesterol is carried around the body in the blood in the form of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL is generally known as the ‘bad’ cholesterol, as raised levels of it are associated with cardiovascular disease, and it is deposited in plaques that cause tightening and stiffening of blood vessels and can become clots.

What foods have an effect?

The claim in the video and caption that “Dietary cholesterol does not affect bodily cholesterol” is misleading.

Historically, avoiding cholesterol-rich foods was seen to be key to cardiovascular health. Experts now believe this link is less strong than previously thought.

The post uses the example of an egg when talking about cholesterol in foods. A notable study of almost 120,000 people published in 1999 found no association between eating an egg a day and the risk of stroke or heart disease in healthy people over an eight to 14 year follow up period, though for people with diabetes an increased risk of heart disease was associated with higher egg consumption. 

This study does not mean that cholesterol containing foods in general aren’t linked to disease.

An American Heart Association (AHA) science advisory references consensus opinion that “dietary cholesterol modestly increases total cholesterol, and LDL-cholesterol on average, although hypo- and hyper-responders [people who see smaller or larger changes in response to their diet] do exist in the population” and recommends that patients with problematic cholesterol levels “should be cautious in consuming foods rich in cholesterol”.

It also notes that foods (eaten in the US at least) that tend to include cholesterol are also high in saturated fats, a topic we discuss further down, as well as that “heart-healthy” diets tend to contain little cholesterol.

About one in 250 people have a genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH), which leaves the liver less able to process LDL and means the level in your blood can get too high. NICE, the body that sets evidence based guidance for the management of medical conditions in the UK, says that people with FH should aim to consume less than 300mg of cholesterol per day. 

Two medium eggs would surpass this limit. Single portions of high cholesterol foods like liver generally would too.

Which other substances are important?

The video goes onto claim: “What will f**k your cholesterol levels up though is too much sugar, overconsumption of refined processed carbohydrates and all that ultra processed b******s that's labelled as low calorie and low fat, full of nothing but sugar.”

The idea that low fat foods and carbohydrates are the key to cholesterol levels is misleading.

Sugar can affect cholesterol levels, as high sugar intake can lower the amount of ‘good’ HDL in the body. But fats in food are more strongly linked.

Fats are essential in the human diet, but the NHS and the British Dietetic Association advise to cut down on saturated fats—which importantly are often found in higher amounts in animal foods alongside cholesterol—to help reduce blood cholesterol levels. 

Eating too much saturated fat increases ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease and stroke. The AHA says that “decades of sound science” has shown this.

The information included in this article contains the latest evidence and official guidance available at the time it was written. This is not a substitute for medical advice. If you require specific medical advice please consult your GP.

Featured image courtesy of Mateusz Feliksik

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