Facts About Cholesterol and Fats

Most people know that fat is bad for them, but two-thirds of Americans are confused about cholesterol and how it is different from fat.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance your body needs to work properly. But too much cholesterol can be bad for you. Your body makes cholesterol. You get cholesterol from animal products like meat, dairy foods, and eggs.

Can You Burn Off Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a type of lipid, just as fats are. However, unlike fat, cholesterol can't be exercised off, sweated out, or burned for energy.

Is Cholesterol Good or Bad?

Just as homemade oil-and-vinegar dressing separates into a watery pool with a fat-slick topping, so also would fats and cholesterol if they were dumped directly into the blood. To solve this dilemma, the body transports fat and cholesterol by coating them with a water-soluble "bubble" of protein. This protein-fat bubble is called a lipoprotein.

  • Low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) carry cholesterol to the tissues. This is "bad" cholesterol, since high LDL levels are linked to increased risk for heart disease.
  • High-density lipoproteins (HDLs) carry excess cholesterol back to the liver, which processes and excretes the cholesterol. HDLs are "good" cholesterol: The more HDL you have, the lower your risk for developing heart disease.
  • HDLs and LDLs are found only in your blood, not in food.

Test Your Cholesterol

A blood test called a lipid panel is an important tool your doctor can use to help determine your overall risk for heart disease. The results of your test will show both your total cholesterol and the level of LDL, HDL, and triglycerides circulating in your blood.

These results will be used along with other factors such as your gender, race, age, smoking status, and health issues such as high blood pressure and diabetes to determine your chance of having a serious heart or circulation problem within the next 10 years. At that point, your doctor will discuss with you a strategy for reducing that risk. That strategy will include what steps, if any, you might need to take to lower your LDL cholesterol.

Which Fats Are Saturated?

Saturated fats increase your total cholesterol levels and are generally associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Less than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fats. In general, the harder a fat, the more saturated it is. Beef and dairy fats are mostly saturated fats. Liquid oils are usually unsaturated fats, including monounsaturated fats in olive and canola oils and polyunsaturated fats in safflower, corn, soybean, and fish oils. Coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils are exceptions to the rule; these liquid vegetable oils are highly saturated fats.

Fear of Frying

Eating foods with a lot of saturated fat may raise your risk for heart disease; this causes the amount of bad LDLs in your blood to increase while good HDLs decrease. Cut the saturated fat, and your blood-cholesterol levels and your risk for heart disease can fall, too. Your risk for cancer also decreases. A diet with more polyunsaturated fats, rather than saturated fats, lowers total blood-cholesterol levels, however Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids also drop HDL levels, so although most believe that loss of bad cholesterol offsets this loss of good cholesterol, its benefit is uncertain. Olive oil is another story. This oil lowers total-blood cholesterol and LDL cholesterol without causing HDL levels to drop. By using olive oil, you can decrease your total-cholesterol levels while maintaining your HDL levels, thus decreasing your risk for heart disease

The Lowdown on Trans Fats

Hydrogenated fats are liquid vegetable oils made creamy when manufacturers convert some of the unsaturated fats into saturated ones through a process called "hydrogenation." This process also rearranges the molecular shape of the remaining unsaturated fats. The resulting shape is an abnormal "trans" shape.

Trans fatty acids raise blood cholesterol levels and increase heart disease risk even more than saturated fats. For this reason, the FDA has acted to remove TFAs from all foods by 2020. Knowing your fats gives you an edge when it comes to buying and preparing the right foods to eat. And when you steer away from the saturated fats and trans fatty acids, you can live a heart-healthy life. The bottom line is:

  • Eat less saturated fat and avoid trans fats completely.
  • Try to eat fresh, un-fried fatty fish two or three times a week.
  • Use olive oil, but in moderation if you're watching your weight.
  • Fill your plate with fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and legumes.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 29, 2019



National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: "Facts About Blood Cholesterol."

Journal of the American College of Cardiology (2013): "2013 ACC/AHA Guideline on the Treatment of Blood Cholesterol to Reduce Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Risk in Adults."

United State Department of Agriculture: Dietary Guidelines for Americans

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