Ever since high blood cholesterol levels have been identified as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, cholesterol from food has been regarded almost exclusively as bad for health. But contrary to this, it is actually an essential nutrient meaning you need it to be healthy. And unlike blood cholesterol which can be good HDL and bad LDL, the cholesterol from food is simply necessary. How much of it you eat is what determines whether cholesterol from food is good or bad for you and whether you will enjoy health benefits or side effects.
What is cholesterol more exactly? By definition, cholesterol is a type of fat, or more correctly, a lipid. But it is a unique type of fat, different from unsaturated fats, saturated fats and trans fats. Yes, cholesterol is not a saturated fat, but an altogether different kind of fat. The myth that they are one and the same has stemmed from the erroneous belief that bad fats are all the same and since saturated fats and cholesterol were both considered bad for cardiovascular health, they were put in the same category.
Cholesterol provides structure to cell membranes, helps make hormones to regulate metabolism and aids in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D. And it is these fundamental roles in the human body that make it essential for good health. As such, it is considered a dietary nutrient, just as important as Omega-3 fatty acids, protein or B vitamins. Actually, it is quite the essential nutrient, paramount for the health of many systems and organs, notably the brain and nervous system.
Where does cholesterol come from?
Well, first of all, from food. Animal products like red meat, fish, eggs, milk and dairy all have cholesterol, but plant-based foods also have a form called phytosterol. Phytosterols are plant forms of cholesterol, with a similar chemical composition and similar health effects. If you don’t get enough cholesterol from dietary sources the body produces its own, yet another reason that supports the idea that cholesterol is an essential nutrient.
And in order to maintain a certain balance, the body will regulate its production according to how much or how little you get from your diet. For example, if you eat eggs, red meat, fish, milk and dairy every week, you might get enough cholesterol and your body will produce less than if you didn’t eat such products. If you don’t get enough from dietary sources, your body will compensate by producing more. While a cholesterol deficiency is extremely rare, a too high a intake is quite common.
Is cholesterol good or bad for you? Actually, it can be both good and bad, depending on how high or low your intake is compared to your requirements. For example, the recommended daily intake for an average person eating a 2,000 kcal diet is 300 mg of cholesterol. This amount is considered more than sufficient and, should dietary requirements be higher or intakes too low, your body should produce the rest. Excess dietary cholesterol on the other hand can be bad for your health over time.
Why is cholesterol an essential nutrient?
Here are the most notable functions and health benefits of cholesterol:
1) Helps synthesize vitamin D for good immunity.
2) Makes up cell membranes throughout the body.
Maintains cell membrane properties.
3) Helps cells communicate with each other (cell signaling).
4) Helps produce bile acids for digestion.
5) Supports the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
6) Helps synthesize hormones with benefits for fertility.
7) Brain food, improves brain fog, holds benefits for memory and learning.
8) Cholesterol partly makes up the myelin sheath, a protective coating surrounding the tail of nerve cells (vitamin B12 helps with this too).
The myelin sheath is what allows electrical impulses to travel efficiently from one nerve cell to another and supports an efficient communication between the brain and the rest of the body. Without cholesterol (and vitamin B12), the myelin sheath would lose its integrity, which causes demyelination, a potential factor for degenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis.
Potential side effects
The main risk associated with eating too much cholesterol for too long is cardiovascular disease. And it’s not because of the cholesterol from food. It’s actually because foods rich in cholesterol are also extremely rich in fats of all sorts and calories, causing weight gain that could progress towards obesity and from there to fat deposits on artery walls that represent the start of cardiovascular disease. Research tells us that overall fat and calorie intake is more representative for cardiovascular health than just dietary cholesterol and that we should strive to have a balanced and varied diet to avoid excesses of any kind, not just cholesterol.
So getting too much cholesterol from dietary sources is bad for you in the long run because it means you are also getting excessive amounts of fat and calories. This can lead to various side effects such as:
1) High blood cholesterol levels, both LDL and total cholesterol levels and atherosclerosis.
2) Weight gain, obesity, diabetes, hypertension.
3) Increased risk of cardiovascular events (myocardial infarction).
4) High cholesterol has also been theorized to be a risk factor for cancer, especially hormone-sensitive cancers.
Where you get your cholesterol matters too. For example, 100 g of whole chicken eggs (roughly 2 eggs) has 373 mg of cholesterol, 73 mg more than the recommended daily intake for an average adult. However, eating two eggs a day (but not every single day for the rest of your life) might be a better choice than eating processed meats like sausages, salami, ham, pork sausage, luncheon meats and other similar products which are also high in sodium, saturated fats and preservatives and more likely to raise blood pressure, cholesterol, cancer risks and affect cardiovascular health overall. One whole egg and one egg white would surely be a better choice than fast food, for example. Not to mention you can limit your intake of eggs (read more about how many eggs you should eat per week), whilst processed foods and other foods rich in cholesterol are more difficult to limit.
And, as research shows, it’s not really the cholesterol in food that causes cardiovascular disease. There are actually a lot of people with high blood cholesterol, but a normal weight that are perfectly healthy. Your body can successfully regulate cholesterol metabolism (how you use, produce, eliminate cholesterol) producing less if you eat more and producing more if you eat less. Only when you eat excessive amounts of foods high in fat which are also incidentally high in cholesterol does the fat start to accumulate and cholesterol too, but only because intakes are excessive and the body simply cannot cope. And that’s when the health problems appear.
Cholesterol is an essential nutrient, but is only good for you in limited amounts, preferably no more than 300 mg a day. Eating too much represents a risk factor for cardiovascular disease in the long run because foods rich in cholesterol are also rich in other fats as well as calories which promote weight gain and set the tone for chronic disease. In the end, it is important to enjoy a balanced, varied diet and avoid dietary excesses of any kind.