8 Surprising Cholesterol Saboteurs

by Lambeth Hochwald Health Writer

If you’re doing everything you can to control your cholesterol levels—from eating right to taking your meds—but your numbers aren’t where you want them to be, we totally understand your frustration. But there’s no reason to beat yourself up over it. With more than 93 million Americans facing high cholesterol levels, according to the CDC, it’s possible—likely, say the experts—that there are sneaky things that are getting in the way of getting your numbers in line. Read on to learn about some of the trickiest cholesterol saboteurs around.

coconut oil

Coconut Oil

While coconut oil has been hailed as a superfood and a poll conducted by the New York Times found that 72% of Americans considered coconut oil to be super healthy, there are some truths about it that may be hard to hear: Multiple studies have found that coconut oil raises bad (LDL) cholesterol levels. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for coconut oil but some of the tropical nuts and oils are higher in saturated fats,” says Bruce W. Andrus, M.D., co-director of the lipid clinic at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

wedge salad

Salad Toppers

If you’ve shifted to eating salads as often as you can, we salute you. Unfortunately, that effort to eat healthfully can derail your cholesterol levels if you add certain high-fat toppers like ranch or blue cheese dressing, bacon bits, cheese, meats, and croutons. “If you’re not paying attention, you can be sitting down to eat a fairly unhealthy salad without even realizing it,” Dr. Andrus says. Instead stick to simple DIY dressings, like vinaigrette made with red vinegar and olive oil.


Lean Meat (That’s Really Not So Lean)

Popular high-protein diets can also slip you up, says Albert Do, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine and clinical director of the Fatty Liver Program. “Many people link protein to an increased meat intake in an attempt to be healthier,” he says. “Inadvertently, you’re consuming excessive dietary fats which makes cholesterol worse.” Sub the meats for other protein-rich foods such as egg whites and tofu. “These foods are excellent sources of protein but aren’t as high in fat,” Dr. Do says.


Sitting All Day

If your job requires you to sit all day—or if you have an exceptionally long commute—your cholesterol levels might be affected. In fact, long periods of sitting have been associated with lower HDL (good cholesterol) and higher triglycerides (fat in the blood). “Some have said that sitting is the new smoking,” Dr. Andrus says. “It definitely hasn’t been associated with good cardiac health.” Your best bet: Get up and move every half hour, keep moving for a solid two minutes, and use a standing or walking desk.


Intermittent Fasting

If you’re on an intermittent fasting diet in which you cycle between fasting periods and eating periods during a 24 hour time block, you may be surprised to experience a big swing in your cholesterol levels next time you go to your physician to have your cholesterol levels checked. “The classic example of this is rapid weight loss,” Dr. Do says. “Crash diets and trying to lose a bunch of weight suddenly can lead to elevated LDL or bad cholesterol levels and decreased HDL or good cholesterol levels.” This is due to a shrinkage of fat cells that can then be released into the bloodstream, leading to the detection of higher cholesterol levels.

measuring belly

Your Waistline

Even if you’re not technically overweight, a larger waistline (in proportion to the rest of the body) can affect your cholesterol levels because it may indicate that you have more abdominal fat, which ups your risk for high cholesterol levels and other health issues like Type 2 diabetes. “Waist circumference can lead to the development of metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance without you ever being overweight,” Dr. Andrus says.

Pill bottles

Your Other Meds

The very fact that you’re taking certain medications may up your risk of high cholesterol levels despite all the heart-healthy habits you’ve taken on. These meds, which include prednisone, oral estrogens, blood pressure medication, diuretics and anabolic steroids, may significantly raise LDL or lower HDL. “This is why it’s so important to speak with your physician about all the medications you’re on, especially if your cholesterol levels are elevated,” Dr. Andrus says.

talking to doctor

An Undiagnosed Medical Condition

If you’re doing everything in your power to keep your cholesterol under control, including eating as healthfully as possible and exercising daily, and yet your lipid profile is less-than-ideal, there may be another reason for your elevated cholesterol levels. Turns out, you may have a genetic proclivity to high cholesterol levels or a medical condition that has yet to be diagnosed. These include an underactive thyroid, uncontrolled diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease and protein in the urine, Dr. Andrus says—all of which have high cholesterol as a biomarker.

Cholesterol Stats: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). “High Cholesterol Facts.” cdc.gov/cholesterol/facts.htm

Lambeth Hochwald
Meet Our Writer
Lambeth Hochwald

Lambeth Hochwald is a consumer lifestyle reporter covering health, fitness, marriage and family.