Cholesterol: What causes high cholesterol?

Cholesterol is both good and bad. At normal levels, it is an essential substance for the body. However, if concentrations in the blood get too high, it becomes a silent danger that puts people at risk of heart attack.

Cholesterol is present in every cell of the body and has important natural functions when it comes to digesting foods, producing hormones, and generating vitamin D. The body produces it, but people also consume it in food. It is waxy and fat-like in appearance.

There are two types of cholesterol:

low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol

high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or “good” cholesterol

In this article, we will explain the role of cholesterol. We will also discuss the causes of high cholesterol, and its symptoms, treatment, and prevention.

Fast facts on cholesterol:

Cholesterol is an essential substance that the body produces but which people also consume in foods.

Risk factors for high cholesterol include family history and the modifiable lifestyle choices of diet and exercise.

Having high cholesterol does not usually produce any symptoms.

If lifestyle changes are unsuccessful or cholesterol levels are very high, a doctor may prescribe a lipid-lowering drug, such as a statin.

What is cholesterol?

Healthful food
Eating fresh food and avoiding animal fats and processed items can help people to control cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol is an oil-based substance. It does not mix with the blood, which is water-based.

It travels around the body in lipoproteins.

Two types of lipoprotein carry the parcels of cholesterol:

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): Cholesterol that travels in this way is unhealthful or “bad” cholesterol.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL): Cholesterol that is present in HDL is known as “good” cholesterol.

Cholesterol has four primary functions, without which we could not survive.

These are:

contributing to the structure of cell walls

making up digestive bile acids in the intestine

allowing the body to produce vitamin D

enabling the body to make certain hormones

Causes of high cholesterol

High cholesterol is a significant risk factor for coronary heart disease and a cause of heart attacks.

A build-up of cholesterol is part of the process that narrows arteries, called atherosclerosis. In atherosclerosis, plaques form and cause restriction of blood flow.

Reducing the intake of fat in the diet helps to manage cholesterol levels. In particular, it is helpful to limit foods that contain:

Cholesterol: This is present in animal foods, meat, and cheese.

Saturated fat: This occurs in some meats, dairy products, chocolate, baked goods, deep-fried, and processed foods.

Trans fats: This occurs in some fried and processed foods.

Excess weight or obesity can also lead to higher blood LDL levels. Genetic factors can contribute to high cholesterol. People with the inherited condition familial hypercholesterolemia have very high LDL levels.

Other conditions that can lead to high cholesterol levels, include:


liver or kidney disease

polycystic ovary syndrome

pregnancy and other conditions that increase levels of female hormones

underactive thyroid gland

drugs that increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol, such as progestins, anabolic steroids, and corticosteroids

a piece of salmon
Oily fish like salmon has been shown to actively decrease cholesterol.

A report from Harvard Health has identified 11 cholesterol-lowering foods that actively decrease cholesterol levels:


barley and whole grains


eggplant and okra


vegetable oil (canola, sunflower)

fruits (mainly apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus)

soy and soy-based foods

fatty fish (particularly salmon, tuna, and sardines)

foods rich in fiber

Adding these to a balanced diet can help keep cholesterol in check.

The same report also lists foods that are bad for cholesterol levels. These include:

red meat

full-fat dairy


hydrogenated oils

baked goods

Various low cholesterol recipe books are available to purchase online.

Levels and ranges

In adults, total cholesterol levels less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) are considered healthy.

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