Expert Q&A

Cholesterol: Why doesn't eating lots of fruits and veggies lower it?

I ate lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and my cholesterol got worse. Why?

The operative word here is “lots.” Many people think they can eat as much fresh fruit and vegetables as they want because “they’re good for you.” Fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates (which are essentially sugars and starches); starch is composed of—and broken down into—sugar. If you eat more than you are burning right now, you store the excess. Some sugar is stored as glycogen (a type of starch), but we can only store a limited amount of glycogen. The rest is converted into fat and saved in our fat cells. 

Some people are born with bodies that do not process the fat properly. As a result, it stays in the blood longer than necessary. About 20% of the fat in our blood is attached to cholesterol in a molecule called very low density lipoprotein (VLDL). More fat in the blood means more VLDL…and hence, more total cholesterol. Additionally, you might have an excess of free triglycerides in your blood, so both your total cholesterol and triglycerides are high. 

For proper cholesterol levels, our diets should include a variety of fruits and vegetables, (particularly those that are high in fiber). Our diet should also include legumes and lean protein, either from vegetables or lean meat and fish. The general rule of thumb is to have a total of 5-8 servings of these foods daily depending on your size and activity level. A serving is approximately a fist sized amount. Desserts and junk food should be minimized. 

Eat only what you need for your immediate energy needs. In ancient times, our bodies needed to store fat for energy to prepare for famine. However, nowadays most of us in the United States don’t have to worry about a lack of food. Fruits and vegetables may be good for you, but you can get too much of a good thing.

John Messmer, MD
Contributing Expert

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