Common Myths About Cholesterol, Foods, and Fats

How to eat to keep your cholesterol low
By Rebecca S. Reeves, DrPH, RD, RADA

2013 is shaping up to be a year of prevention, which should have you thinking about how well you are treating your own heart. If you are trying to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, or your doctor has said that you need to lower your cholesterol, you are probably trying to keep a close eye on your diet.

This does not mean that you must avoid all your favorite foods. What it might take is substituting different ingredients in a recipe or stir-frying a food rather than deep fat-frying it.

Learning the difference in the types of fat that we eat and where these fats are found in our food is also important for controlling the cholesterol levels in our blood. Taking precautions today could prevent a heart condition tomorrow.



Myth: The healthiest diet is one that limits all fats.

Fact: You need to get 25 to 35 percent of your total calories from fats because your body can’t manufacture some essential fatty acids that it requires for proper functioning.


Myth: All dietary fats are essentially the same.

Fact: There are different kinds of fats. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may actually lower your LDL cholesterol, while saturated and trans fats are more closely associated with increasing your LDL cholesterol. Examples of foods containing each variety include:

>> Monounsaturated: olive oil, peanut butter, and avocados.

>> Polyunsaturated: salmon, nuts, and seeds; vegetable oils such as corn, soybean, and safflower.

>> Saturated: fatty red meats, bacon, real butter, and tropical oils such as palm oil and coconut oil.

>> Trans Fat: fast-food French fries, and many commercially packaged foods such as donuts, crackers, and cookies. Found in anything containing “partially hydrogenated oils.” Even if the label claims zero trans fats, the serving is still allowed to have half a gram of trans fats.


Myth: Products that are labeled “low fat ” are generally also low calorie options.

Fact: Some food manufacturers replace the fat with other ingredients that may have just as many calories.


Myth: Olive oil has fewer calories than other types of oils.

Fact: All fats—including olive oil—contain nine calories per gram.


Myth: Foods labeled “trans fats free” are usually healthy options.

Fact: Food manufacturers may replace trans fat with saturated fat, which can also raise your LDL cholesterol. By law, food manufacturers are still allowed to include half a gram of trans fats per serving even if the food is labeled as having zero trans fats.


Myth: I can get a sufficient amount of plant sterols from the foods I eat to take advantage of the sterols’ cholesterol-lowering benefit.

Fact: While it’s true that plant sterols are found in everything from vegetable oils and grains to fruits and vegetables, you would need to eat approximately 100 pounds of fruits and vegetables daily to get the total daily intake of 0.8 grams needed for plant sterols to lower your cholesterol. An easier way is to go to to discover the broad number of mainstream foods that now contain added plant sterols.


Myth: If a food label says “contains plant sterols,” each serving will contain enough to lower cholesterol.

Fact: Not always. To make sure you are receiving an optimal amount of cholesterol-lowering plant sterols, look for the amount of plant sterols per serving on the package information. According to the FDA health claim, a minimum of 0.8 grams of plant sterols per day may reduce your risk of heart disease. To ensure that you are getting the right amount of plant sterols, look for the CoroWise logo with the heart on the label.


Myth: Plant sterols reduce cholesterol in the blood by dissolving it in the intestines.

Fact: Plant sterols work by reducing the absorption of cholesterol from your intestines, which in turn reduces the level of LDL cholesterol in your body. Cholesterol that is not absorbed is eliminated from your body.


Myth: Plant sterols have little effect on lowering LDL cholesterol in your blood.

Fact: The results of numerous clinical studies clearly indicate that plant sterols are effective at lowering LDL cholesterol. While the level of reduction is dependent upon a number of factors, the majority of studies have shown that consuming between 0.8 grams to three grams of plant sterols a day helps reduce LDL cholesterol by five to 15 percent.


Myth: People with normal cholesterol will not benefit from consuming products made with plant sterols.

Fact: Plant sterols lower LDL cholesterol in people with both normal and elevated blood cholesterol levels. Plant sterols can significantly lower LDL cholesterol levels regardless of the starting point.


Myth: Children and pregnant women should not consume large doses of plant sterols.

Fact: While plant sterols are generally recognized as safe food ingredients, they are generally not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women or for children under 5 as these individuals typically do not need cholesterol reduction.


Myth: If you are trying to lower your cholesterol, you should try to eliminate it from your diet almost entirely.

Fact: For most people it’s perfectly safe to have 300 milligrams of cholesterol daily, which is the recommended daily limit.


Myth: Shellfish, including shrimp, have a relatively high amount of cholesterol and should be avoided on a cholesterol-lowering diet.

Fact: While shrimp is higher in cholesterol than some other animal products, it is still very lean and low in saturated fat. So go ahead and enjoy a moderate amount of shrimp and other shellfish occasionally, as long as you aren’t frying them.


Rebecca S. Reeves, DrPH, RD, FADA, is a past president of the American Dietetic Association. For the past 30 years, Dr. Reeves has conducted clinical trials in nutrition and behavioral medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. In 2001 the American Dietetic Association awarded Dr. Reeves with the Medallion Award, one of the highest awards bestowed on a member.