Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the liver. It’s one of the lipids, or fats, the body makes and is used to form cell membranes and some hormones.
If you never ate another bowl of ice cream or another cheeseburger, your body would have enough cholesterol to run smoothly. That’s because the liver makes enough for healthy body function. In fact, the liver produces about 1,000 milligrams of cholesterol a day. The rest comes from the foods we eat.
Although vegetables, fruits, and grains don’t have any cholesterol, the following foods from animals do:
- egg yolks
- dairy products (including milk, cheese, and ice cream)
Good vs. Bad Cholesterol
Cholesterol doesn’t move through the body on its own. It has to combine with proteins to travel through the bloodstream to where it’s needed. Cholesterol and protein traveling together are called lipoproteins.
Two kinds — low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL)— are the two most people have heard about.
Low-density lipoproteins, or “bad cholesterol,” are the primary cholesterol carriers. If there’s too much LDL in the bloodstream, it can build up on the walls of the arteries that lead to the heart and the brain. This buildup forms plaque — a thick, hard substance that can cause blood vessels to become stiffer, narrower, or blocked. Atherosclerosis is the name for hardening of the arteries. If a blood clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery, the result can be a heart attack or stroke.
Atherosclerosis can also diminish blood flow to other vital organs, including the intestines or kidneys.
High-density lipoproteins — the “good cholesterol” — carry cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it’s processed and sent out of the body, and might even help remove cholesterol from already formed plaques.
High levels of LDL increase the risk for heart disease and stroke. But high levels of HDL can help protect the circulatory system.
Three major factors contribute to high cholesterol levels:
- diet: a diet high in fats, particularly saturated and trans fats
- heredity: having parents or a parent with high cholesterol
- obesity: related to both diet and lack of exercise
Kids who are physically active, eat healthy foods, don’t have a family history of high cholesterol, and aren’t overweight probably aren’t at risk for high cholesterol. Your doctor will help decide whether you should have your child’s cholesterol level checked.