Why Is My Cholesterol High If I’m Eating Healthy?
“Why is my cholesterol so high? If you’re asking yourself this question, you’re probably not alone. High cholesterol is a known risk factor for heart disease and stroke, affecting about one-third of American adults. That’s probably a pretty large percentage of adults who have high cholesterol – and it raises the question. Why is high cholesterol so common?
Dietary habits, as many people know, are often responsible for high cholesterol levels: eat a lot of saturated fat – cheeseburgers – high in foods, for example, and your blood cholesterol levels can go up. (We know they’re delicious).
While a diet high in saturated and trans fats can raise your total cholesterol and lead to high LDL and triglyceride levels, that’s not always the case when it comes to cholesterol levels: even if you’re very careful to eat a healthy, balanced diet, high blood cholesterol can take on an unwanted appearance.
Here’s why: there are other potential factors for high cholesterol, such as lack of exercise and your own genetics (so regardless of your diet, it may be helpful to check your blood cholesterol levels – now you can do our home cholesterol test in the comfort of your own home).
So if you’re wondering, “Why do I have high cholesterol even though I eat healthy foods?” , read on for a closer look at these two non-dietary causes of high cholesterol.
(1) Lack of exercise
The truth is, it’s not easy to find the time – or the motivation – to exercise regularly. But be warned: regular physical activity is essential if you want to maintain your body’s health and well-being. After all, exercise has many benefits – both physical and psychological (“There is compelling evidence,” writes a group of researchers, that regular physical activity can help prevent many chronic diseases and premature death). Incorporating sports or exercise into the schedule, along with a balanced diet, are two lifestyle changes that are often recommended for people who want to maintain a healthy weight and lower LDL levels.
On the other hand, lack of exercise often leads to a number of health consequences, some of which are quite serious. For example, one of these health consequences is an increased risk of gaining unhealthy weight.
In the long term, lack of exercise can lead to obesity – which in turn can significantly increase cholesterol levels. In fact, up to 70% of obese patients have abnormal cholesterol and triglyceride levels. It is important to note that when obesity leads to high cholesterol levels in the body, it is often the “bad cholesterol” (LDL cholesterol) levels that are elevated. But levels of “good cholesterol” – or HDL cholesterol – tend to be low. (If you have high triglyceride and/or LDL levels, it’s a good idea to talk with your health care provider about how to do this.)
That’s not all. Obesity can increase the number of small, dense LDL particles in your blood. These LDL particles – very small, as the name implies – can easily get stuck in the walls of your arteries (the blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body), causing a buildup of plaque. Arteries affected by plaque buildup tend to harden and narrow, causing a dramatic slowdown in blood flow – a condition called atherosclerosis. Worryingly, when your arteries are in this condition, the risk of having a stroke or heart attack increases.
Small, dense LDL particles can easily penetrate the artery wall, leading to plaque buildup. Affected arteries usually harden and narrow as a result (see here), which slows blood flow considerably. Source: National Library of Medicine (U.S.) National Library of Medicine (U.S.). Genetics House Reference. Illustration. Plaque in the artery wall. (Quoted from January 31, 2019).
With this in mind, it is important to check your cholesterol levels regularly if you are overweight or obese (you can do this at home with the Everlywell cholesterol and lipid test). If your cholesterol levels are indeed too high, consult your health care provider to learn the next steps that are best for you. Regulating your body’s cholesterol levels can help improve your heart health and overall health.
Did your family have a heart attack when they were younger? If your answer is “yes,” you may be at risk for “familial hypercholesterolemia” – an inherited lipid disorder characterized by high cholesterol levels at a young age and a higher than normal risk of heart disease. (BTW: If you answered “yes” to this question, consider checking your cholesterol levels with a home test kit – and, of course, seeing your doctor).
For example, in women, untreated familial hypercholesterolemia has a 30% risk of coronary events (such as heart attacks) by age 60. In men, this risk rises to 50 percent by age 50.
In addition, even if a person follows a balanced diet and regular physical activity, this genetic condition can lead to high cholesterol levels – something to keep in mind if you want to learn more about what causes high cholesterol in “healthy” people.
But what exactly is this genetic lipid disorder that causes cholesterol levels to rise to alarming levels?
To answer this question, we need to talk about something called the LDL receptor. LDL receptors are special devices located on the surface of many cells in the body. Their job is simple: to capture the particles of LDL cholesterol circulating in the blood and bring them inside the cells (where they break down LDL cholesterol).
In this way, the LDL receptors continually remove LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream – so the amount of circulating LDL cholesterol and eliminating arterial plaque is greatly reduced.
But if you have familial hypercholesterolemia, your cells don’t have many of these receptors, so LDL cholesterol particles build up in your blood faster than they can be removed.
How do I know if I have inherited this disease?
A cholesterol level well above the average for your age group is a clue (note that you can check your cholesterol and lipid levels at home with a cholesterol test kit approved by your doctor).
However, if you are concerned about familial hypercholesterolemia, be sure to consult your doctor, as only a qualified health care provider can make an accurate diagnosis.