5 Things You Didn't Know Cause High Cholesterol

February 11, 2020
Cholesterol


Cholesterol is a naturally-occurring substance found in the blood. Created in the liver, cholesterol is a type of fatty acid that is an essential component in the production of hormones, cell membranes and vitamin D. Although cholesterol plays an important role in so many healthy functions in the body, a buildup of certain cholesterol in the blood is actually detrimental.

There are two main types of cholesterol. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the “good” cholesterol that aids in the removal of excess cholesterol from the body. On the other hand, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad” cholesterol that can build up and lead to blockages in the blood vessels and arteries. This build up eventually blocks blood flow and leads to heart disease, stroke and heart attack

In order to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system, it’s important to manage healthy cholesterol levels. Furthermore, it’s important to take a look at the lifestyle choices that may contribute to high cholesterol levels. It’s common to associate high cholesterol with diet, pinpointing well-known foods like red meat and cheese. However, your diet isn’t the only factor that affects your cholesterol levels. Here are five lifestyle factors that can negatively impact your cholesterol levels and cardiovascular health.

1. Coffee

For those of us who need something to kick start our day, coffee is a reliable go-to. Considering 64 percent of Americans have at least one cup of coffee per day, it’s safe to assume that most of us (even the health-conscious) turn a blind eye to the negative effects that coffee may have on our body. 

In terms of managing cholesterol levels, filtered coffee is the healthiest option. This includes most standard drip coffee that you would make at home. Unfiltered coffee, including espresso-based drinks like cappuccino, may have a higher association with increased LDL levels. Unfiltered coffee contains higher levels of coffee oils that stimulate the synthesis of cholesterol in the body.

It’s also important to consider what you’re adding to your coffee, and what unhealthy habits may go hand in hand with coffee drinking. Adding sugar and cream to coffee can quickly add calories and fat, which can influence cholesterol levels. 


2. Refined Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body. Complex carbohydrates, including foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans are a great source of fiber and slow-releasing energy. These carbohydrates are highly nutritious and are critical for many healthy functions in the body. Health experts recommend that complex carbs make up 45 to 65 percent of calories for the average adult. 

Refined carbohydrates on the other hand can have detrimental effects on your cholesterol levels by increasing harmful LDL cholesterol. Refined carbohydrates include foods like sodas, candy and other sweets that contain refined sugar and corn syrup. While it may seem obvious to some that these are unhealthy, there are other sources of refined carbohydrates that are not quite so obvious. These include:

  • White bread
  • White rice
  • Regular pasta
  • Instant oatmeal

Although these foods are often marketed as healthy, they are all primarily made up of refined carbohydrates. Although refined carbohydrates have been associated with higher LDL levels, the exact mechanism for how these foods affect cholesterol isn’t fully understood. It’s possible that fiber, which refined carbohydrates lack, is needed to bind to cholesterol and eliminate it from the body.

3. Alcohol

Despite being cholesterol-free itself, alcohol can play a role in increasing cholesterol levels. Beer specifically is filled with empty calories and has high amounts of refined carbohydrates, which contribute to high levels of cholesterol. Hard liquors and spirits don’t have a major effect on cholesterol levels when served alone. However, consuming this type of alcohol in mixed drinks may pose a problem due to the high sugar and calorie content of popular mixers.

Although it’s unclear which type of alcohol has the greatest effect on cholesterol levels, many experts agree that how often you drink has more of an effect

4. Lack of Exercise

It’s common to pinpoint food as the culprit for high cholesterol levels. However, exercise plays an important role in managing cholesterol as well. Perhaps most importantly, exercise prevents weight gain and obesity. Furthermore, the actual act of exercise may play a role in reducing cholesterol. 

Thirty minutes of exercise six days a week can be considered a good starting point to reduce cholesterol levels. However, more intense exercise sessions will lead to greater changes. Although intense exercise may be more effective to manage cholesterol, moderate exercise still has a beneficial effect by raising HDL levels.

5. Excess Weight

Excess weight can have a negative role on cardiovascular health. Obesity has been linked to higher levels of LDL cholesterol and lower levels of HDL cholesterol. There are several lifestyle practices that are common among those who are overweight that may influence cholesterol levels as well.  A lack of exercise and high intake of processed carbohydrates can be blamed as they both lead to increased weight gain along with higher levels of cholesterol. 


It’s difficult to reverse high cholesterol levels in those who are overweight or obese by changing diet alone. This is because obesity changes how cholesterol is dealt with by the body and changes the response to the type of fats consumed. Excess weight actually increases the amount of LDL made by the liver, and reduces the clearance of LDL in the blood. Therefore, a combination of diet change and exercise are necessary to effectively manage your levels.

The Next Steps?

In order to manage cholesterol levels, it’s important to make necessary lifestyle changes. Start by evaluating how coffee, alcohol, carbohydrates, exercise and excess weight may be affecting your cholesterol levels. Then, make small changes to pursue your goal of reducing and managing your cholesterol. 

Testing and monitoring your cholesterol levels will help you learn how your diet, weight and lifestyle are impacting your health.

Breanna Woods

Hi there! I’m Breanna. Friends call me Bre, and you can, too! I’m an Indianapolis, IN-area dietitian who believes a healthy lifestyle should be sustainable and fun. I’m also a new mom who loves to cook, travel and hike with my adventurous husband. Oh, and I can’t forget our handsome husky Huck. He keeps us on our toes! Since becoming a dietitian, I have worked in the clinical field, helping patients manage a variety of medical conditions.

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