Blood Cholesterol vs. Dietary Cholesterol

It may surprise you to know that our bodies make all the cholesterol we need. When your doctor takes a blood test to measure your cholesterol level, the doctor is actually measuring the amount of circulating cholesterol in your blood, or your blood cholesterol level. About 85 percent of your blood cholesterol level is endogenous, which means it is produced by your body. The other 15 percent or so comes from an external source -- your diet. Your dietary cholesterol originates from meat, poultry, fish, seafood and dairy products. It's possible for some people to eat foods high in cholesterol and still have low blood cholesterol levels. Likewise, it's possible to eat foods low in cholesterol and have a high blood cholesterol level.

So, why is there so much talk about cholesterol in our diet? It's because the level of cholesterol already present in your blood can be increased by high consumption of cholesterol and saturated fat in your diet. This increase in dietary cholesterol has been associated with atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaques that can narrow or block blood vessels. (Think about what happens to your kitchen drain pipes when you pour chicken fat down the sink.) If the coronary arteries of the heart become blocked, a heart attack can occur. The blocked artery can also develop rough edges. This can cause plaques to break off and travel, obstructing blood vessels elsewhere in the body. A blocked blood vessel in the brain can trigger a stroke.

The average American man eats about 360 milligrams of cholesterol a day; the average woman eats between 220 and 260 milligrams daily. So how are we doing? The American Heart Association recommends that we limit our average daily cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams. Obviously, people with high levels of cholesterol in the blood should take in even less.