Cholesterol and Your Genes: Facts versus Myths

Like fats and sugar, cholesterol is often demonized as unhealthy and bad for your body. The reality is that your genetic makeup plays an important role in determining the role cholesterol plays in your body. Here, we’re looking at some of the relevant facts and biggest myths surrounding cholesterol.

Myth: Cholesterol is Bad

Cholesterol isn’t bad. In fact, it plays a vital role in several bodily processes, such as insulating nerve cells in the brain, regulating protein pathways, assisting with synapse formation in your brain, producing vitamin D, aiding in digestion and more. Without enough cholesterol in your body, your digestive system may be negatively affected and you may struggle to think as sharply.

When we think about “bad” cholesterol, we’re thinking about LDL cholesterol. There are two types of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol to and from cells—low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL cholesterol is less desirable than HDL because it can contribute to fatty buildups in arteries. This could, as a result, raise the risk for heart attack, stroke and other diseases. However, like anything, the key is moderation, not entire elimination.

HDL cholesterol is often referred to as “good” cholesterol. It’s the healthier of the two, so higher levels are better. HDL cholesterol carries LDL cholesterol to the liver and away from the arteries. The liver then breaks it down so it can pass from your body. High levels of HDL cholesterol can lower the risk of heart disease.

Myth: High Cholesterol is Caused By Your Diet

As your liver produces much of your cholesterol, most of the cholesterol in your bloodstream isn’t from the foods you consume but is actually created by your body. Genetics play a bigger role in your cholesterol than your diet, as your genetics impact how effectively your liver regulates cholesterol to a healthy level.

For example, some people may have genetic familial hypercholesterolemia. This condition is distinguished by extremely high cholesterol levels and a resistance to lowering cholesterol even with a healthy diet and exercise.

Additionally, high cholesterol is genetic and runs in families. Among people with this condition, their bodies produce more cholesterol than the liver can handle, which causes a buildup of fat and plaque in their arteries. Some researchers believe high cholesterol affects 1 in 400 people, and is more common among French Canadian, Ashkenazi Jewish and other founder populations, where it occurs in 1 in 100 people.

Myth: You Should Eat as Little Cholesterol as Possible

Healthy, cholesterol-rich foods are actually food for you. As most of you cholesterol is produced from your body, foods with cholesterol aren’t likely to transform your body’s cholesterol levels. So eating cholesterol-rich foods may not affect the cholesterol that’s already in your bloodstream.

Focus on eating foods with HDL, instead of LDL cholesterol, and avoid foods with high levels of trans fats and saturated fats, which raise your LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL cholesterol. Foods with high levels of saturated fats include:

  • Sweet pastries, such as cake, donuts and cookies
  • Soda and other sugary beverages
  • Red or fatty meat
  • Butter, lard and shortening
  • Fried food
  • Whole-fat dairy foods

These foods may contribute to obesity, which can increase your risk of heart disease and other health conditions.

Foods with healthy cholesterol that can lower or LDL and raise your HDL cholesterol include:

  • Olive oil
  • Legumes and beans
  • Nuts
  • High fiber fruits
  • Fatty fish
  • Whole grains

Myth: High Cholesterol Causes Heart Disease and Heart Attacks

Multiple studies show that people with heart disease or who experience heart attacks have normal cholesterol levels. Rather, your triglycerides to HDL cholesterol ratio may play a role in increasing or decreasing your risk for heart disease. A healthy ratio is 2 to 1 for triglycerides to HDL. A ratio of 4 to 1 is considered high. A Harvard study showed that people with high ratios of triglycerides to HDL had 16 times the risk of heart disease as those with the lowest ratio.

Your ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol can also play a role in your risk for heart disease. Divide your HDL level by your cholesterol. Your percentage should be above 24%.

More so than cholesterol, inflammation plays a bigger role in causing heart disease. When the lining of your arteries is injured, they become inflamed. LDL cholesterol can get trapped where your arteries were injured, creating a dangerous buildup that can turn into plaque.

Myth: Everyone Will Benefit from a Low Cholesterol Diet

Your genes play a role in how your body processes macronutrients, which is why you want to align your diet with your genetics. If your family has a history of heart disease or if you have high LDL cholesterol levels, a low-cholesterol diet may be beneficial for you and help protect you from related diseases.

One way to determine which diet is best for you is to take a genetic test, such as the Pathway Healthy Weight DNA Insight®. By testing for a number of genes, you and your doctor can develop a genetically-matched diet designed to help you achieve or maintain a healthy weight. Understanding your specific genetic makeup can help you understand which diet may be beneficial for you.