It’s waxy. It’s a lot like fat. And it’s found in every cell of your body. Yes, we’re talking about cholesterol—a topic that probably doesn’t come up too often at the dinner table since it’s not exactly, uh, appetizing.
Like so many health terms, cholesterol is one of those important things you know you should care about but don’t necessarily understand. That’s why we’re here. We’ve rounded up the top four facts you need to know about cholesterol.
1. Your body needs cholesterol (but not too much).
“We all have cholesterol in our bodies,” says Kimberly Gomer, R.D., the director of nutrition for Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa. “It makes hormones, it carries out many cell functions, but it also builds up plaque in our arteries.”
Our bodies actually make all the cholesterol we need, but the food we eat can raise or lower the amount in our blood. Having too little cholesterol (a condition called hypocholesterolemia) is pretty rare—and usually caused by things like malnutrition, chronic anemia, liver disease, or genetic conditions.1 Docs mostly get concerned when you have too much cholesterol in your body (referred to as “high blood cholesterol” or hypercholesterolemia) because it means you have a greater chance of developing plaque buildup in your arteries, called atherosclerosis.
Plaque is a combination of cholesterol, fat, and calcium that can build up around the walls of your arteries and make it difficult for blood to circulate. Depending on where the buildup occurs, it can result in vascular diseases such as coronary heart disease, carotid artery disease, and peripheral artery disease.
If you think you’re too young or that this concerns only folks your parents’ age, think again. Even mildly high cholesterol levels over a long period of time can increase your risk of heart disease later in life. Translation: What seems like a slight issue right now could end up hurting you later.
“You don’t get plaque on your 41st birthday, and up until then everything was fine,” says Howard Weintraub, M.D., a cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. But it also isn’t as easy as pointing the finger at high cholesterol. It’s usually a combination of things, including genetics, weight, diet, and—this is a big one—smoking, Weintraub says.
- Hypocholesterolemia. Moutzouri E, Elisaf M, Liberopoulos EN. Current vascular pharmacology, 2011, May.;9(2):1875-6212.