Cholesterol and Women: Top 5 Myths Debunked

As I have mentioned in many of my previous Straight Talks, keeping your cholesterol in check is one important way to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. As simple as this may sound, I’ve found that many people, including women, have bought into some of the cholesterol myths and legends, making it difficult to make heart-healthy decisions. Let’s debunk a few of those cholesterol myths!

Myth #1 — All cholesterol is bad cholesterol.

False: Your body actually needs cholesterol to form cell membranes and even make certain hormones. Your own liver naturally produces cholesterol for these specific purposes. Extra cholesterol enters the body when we eat foods that come from animals, like meats, eggs, and dairy products.

Furthermore, there are two main types of cholesterol in the body: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

  • LDL cholesterol is often called “bad cholesterol” because LDL particles deliver cholesterol to your cells. High levels of LDL cause fatty buildup (plaque) in the blood vessels, which can lead to heart disease. You want LDL levels to be Low.
  • HDL, or “good cholesterol,” carries cholesterol from your cells back to your liver and can be removed from your body. People with high levels of HDL are at lower risk for heart disease. You want your HDL levels to be High.

Myth #2 — Foods high in cholesterol are what increase my cholesterol blood levels.

False: Over 80% of the cholesterol in your blood is made by your own liver. The rest comes from food. It is actually foods rich in saturated fats that should be avoided because they will increase your cholesterol levels. These include butterfat in milk products, fat from red meat, and tropical oils such as coconut oil.

Myth #3 — If someone has high cholesterol, it’s because they’re not eating right and not exercising.

False: With dedication to proper nutrition and exercise, a woman can expect her cholesterol levels to go down about 10-20%. Remember that 80% of the cholesterol in your blood is produced by your liver, so 80% of your cholesterol level is determined by your genetics. This means that if a woman has very high cholesterol naturally, decreasing her cholesterol 10-20% through diet and exercise may not be enough to bring her down to a healthy level.

For example, say a woman has a total cholesterol level of 250 mg/dl and decides to completely revamp her eating habits and train for marathons. At best she can reduce her cholesterol level to 200 mg/dl, which is still considered borderline high.

For those who are “doing everything right” and still cannot bring their cholesterol levels down to a desirable level, it’s time to turn off the guilt! Sometimes we just can’t do it on our own because our bodies were genetically made a certain way. There is no shame in seeking help from a physician.

Myth #4 — Cholesterol levels go down after a woman hits menopause because she has less estrogen in her blood.

False: After menopause, a woman should always expect her cholesterol levels to go up. This is not only because LDL (bad cholesterol) tends to increase during this stage but also because post-menopausal women gain, on average, 8-10 pounds and often become more sedentary. The earlier you can address your cholesterol the better so you can prepare yourself for the changes to come.

Myth #5 — By the time a woman reaches menopause, it is too late to improve cardiovascular risk due to high cholesterol.

False: As you age, your risk for heart and vascular disease increases. This means that the older you get, the more important cholesterol becomes! It is never too late to start addressing your health, and treatment for high cholesterol after menopause is extremely important to reduce your risk of heart disease. You can get started by filling out a Know Your Numbers worksheet and taking it to your doctor.

For even more detailed information about cholesterol and the heart, visit the cholesterol information page in THI’s online Heart Information Center.

Until next time!

Stephanie Coulter, MD


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