What is high cholesterol?

Basically, high cholesterol means that the cholesterol level in your bloodstream puts you at an increased risk of developing heart disease. To learn more about high cholesterol levels, see How high is too high? and Setting goals.

Where does cholesterol come from?

Our liver makes about 80% of the cholesterol that appears in our blood; the rest comes from what we eat.

Many foods contain small amounts of cholesterol, but evidence suggests that saturated fats and trans fats in our diet have the greatest impact on blood cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are usually found in meat and dairy products. That's why it is important to look not only at cholesterol levels in foods, but also at how much saturated fat the food contains.

Although a few people can eat a diet high in saturated fats and keep their cholesterol levels under control, most people need to eat foods lower in fat to keep cholesterol at a healthy level.

The production of cholesterol in your liver is affected by your family history (genetics) and how your liver functions. This means that your diet and lifestyle are not the only things causing high cholesterol levels. Your risk of high cholesterol also increases with age.

Is cholesterol all bad?

Your body needs some cholesterol for healthy functioning. Cholesterol is used to make the building blocks of the body (cells) and hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers that help the body's cells communicate. For example, the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone are made in the body from cholesterol.

How many people have high cholesterol?

About 40% of Canadian men and women have high cholesterol. Are you one of them? Check with your doctor about getting your cholesterol tested and whether you should have other tests to check your risk of developing heart disease.