Will Keto Cause High Cholesterol?

Introduction

The Keto diet is known for being high in fats and low in carbohydrates.  For the last few decades, diets high in fat were thought to cause high cholesterol and it was recommended that you avoid them.  The history surrounding advice related to fat and cholesterol might cause you to wonder if the Keto diet will impact your cholesterol levels in a negative way.  

The short answer is, no, the Keto diet won’t cause unhealthy cholesterol levels.  In fact, the opposite is true!  The following article will explain what cholesterol is, how the Keto diet affects it and tips on how to use Keto in order to see improvements in your cholesterol levels. 

Overview of cholesterol

Cholesterol is a type of fat that’s made by your body.  Despite the negative connotations surrounding the word, cholesterol isn’t a good or bad thing in and of itself.  Some cholesterol is needed by your body in order to create new cells and hormones.  Cholesterol is made by your body, naturally, in the liver.  Your liver is capable of making all of the cholesterol you need.

There is a dietary source of cholesterol as well.  Foods that contain trans fats and saturated fats can raise your cholesterol by instructing your liver to increase the amount of cholesterol that it produces.  Since your body naturally regulated cholesterol levels, foods high in saturated and trans fats can cause your liver to produce more cholesterol than it needs.  When this happens it builds up in your arteries and too high of a build up can lead to blockages, heart disease and stroke.

LDL Cholesterol

If you’ve ever had your cholesterol tested you probably noticed that the reading was broken down into several different numbers.  The number that causes doctors the most concern is the reading of your LDL cholesterol level.  LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein and it’s the “bad” type of cholesterol.  When your LDL levels are high it means that there’s a build-up of cholesterol inside of your arteries and this can lead to heart disease.

HDL Cholesterol

HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein and it’s a “good” type of cholesterol.  You want to see high levels of HDL cholesterol when you get your blood tested.  HDL cholesterol helps to keep your arteries clear of blockages by preventing the build-up of LDL cholesterol.  It does this by basically pushing the LDL cholesterol out of your arteries, keeping them open and reducing your chances of developing blockages, heart disease or stroke.

What causes high levels of cholesterol?

When you get your blood levels tested you should see low levels of LDL cholesterol and high levels of HDL cholesterol so the term “high cholesterol” is a little misleading.  High levels of LDL cholesterol are something to worry about and they can be caused by a diet that’s rich in saturated and trans fats.  Trans fats are found in baked goods, processed foods and food that you might pick up from fast food restaurants.  Saturated fat is most commonly found in animal products such as red meat and dairy.  It can also be found in oils such as coconut and palm oil.  

A diet that’s high in these foods can contribute to higher levels of LDL cholesterol.  However, a diet that doesn’t contain enough good fats can also contribute to high levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood.  This is because good fats, such as the plant-based fats found in olives and avocados, help to raise your HDL levels which in turn, lowers your LDL levels.  

It’s a delicate balancing act.  One thing’s for sure, not all cholesterol is “bad” and not all fat is “bad”.  Despite popular belief, you actually need a diet rich in healthy fats in order to raise the levels of your “good” HDL cholesterol. 

Overview of Keto

The Keto diet is a high-fat, low carbohydrate diet.  You eat a moderate amount of protein on Keto (roughly 20-25% of your calories).  The Keto diet asks you to restrict calories and increase your healthy fat intake in order to stop your body from relying on glucose for the majority of its energy needs.  Instead, the Keto diet seeks to increase the number of ketones your body produces so that ketones are the primary energy source.

Glucose relies on carbohydrates.  Without carbs, your body cannot produce enough glucose to properly fuel every daily process.  Because your body is designed for survival, it has ketones in its back pocket as a way to fuel your body when there aren’t enough carbs coming in to create glucose.

When you follow a Keto diet your goal is to eat between 20-25g of net carbs a day.  Net carbs are the carbohydrates that your body can digest and turn into glucose.  Fiber and sugar alcohols cannot be digested by your body which means that they don’t count towards your net carbs.  In order to figure out the net carbs of your food you simply take the total carbs, subtract any fiber or sugar alcohols and you’re left with your net carbs.

The Keto diet asks you to steer clear of foods such as bread, pasta, grains and starchy vegetables.  You should also avoid any sugar, processed foods and super sugary fruits.  This is because all of these foods are too high in carbohydrates to fit into your Keto carb budget.

Instead, you should focus on non-starchy vegetables such as kale, spinach and swiss chard.  These veggies will help provide your body with important nutrients and fiber.  Low sugar fruit such as avocados and berries also add important nutrients to your diet.  Since it’s a moderate protein diet, animal products such as red meat, poultry and dairy are allowed as long as they’re consumed in moderation.  The focus on Keto is healthy fats which means that your diet will consist of a lot of fatty fish, nuts, seeds and oils such as avocado and extra-virgin olive oil.

How does Keto effect cholesterol levels?

The Keto diet is a high-fat diet; however, it’s a diet that’s high in the right types of fats.  Trans fats are not a part of a healthy Keto and saturated fats are allowed in moderation. The fat that Keto encourages are the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that are found in fish, nuts, seeds and plant-based oils.

Polyunsaturated Fat:

Polyunsaturated fat is a type of fat that’s commonly found in plant and animal sources.  It often contains omega 3’s and omega 6’s.  These fatty acids are vital for proper brain and cell health. You cannot make either omega 3’s or omega 6’s naturally in your body so it’s important to get enough of them in your diet. A diet that’s high in polyunsaturated fats has been shown to lower your LDL levels, improving your overall cholesterol. 

Some good sources of polyunsaturated fats are nuts such as walnuts, almonds and brazil nuts.  Seeds such as flaxseed, chia seeds and poppy seeds are also high in polyunsaturated fats. Avocados are another great source of polyunsaturated fat.  If you’re looking for an animal source, salmon, eggs, chicken, turkey and roasted duck are great options.  For vegans looking for high-protein sources of polyunsaturated fats, tofu is a good option.

Monounsaturated fat:

Monounsaturated fats are often found in plant sources such as nuts and seeds.  They’re usually a liquid at room temperature, which is why plant-based oils are often high in monounsaturated fats.  Monounsaturated fats can help lower your risk of heart disease as well as contribute to weight loss and improved satiety from foods. 

Monounsaturated fats have been shown to lower your LDL cholesterol levels, improving the health of your arteries. They’re also showing signs of being helpful in managing type II diabetes.  Some great sources of monounsaturated fatty acids are avocado and extra-virgin olive oil.  By extension, both olives and avocados are also great sources.  Nuts such as macadamia, peanut, hazelnut and almonds are high in monounsaturated fats.  Sunflower seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds are also great sources. 

Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel are rich in monounsaturated fats. Wild fish tends to have higher levels of nutrients, including monounsaturated fats, so if you have the money in your budget it’s always better to choose a wild caught fish over one that was farmed.  Eggs and red meat are also good sources of monounsaturated fats; however, it’s important to remember that these foods are also higher in saturated fats so they should be consumed in moderation. 

Keto and cholesterol:

When you follow the recommended guidelines for Keto you should see an increase in your HDL cholesterol levels as well as a decrease in your LDL cholesterol levels.  So, does Keto increase your cholesterol levels?  Yes, it does, but it increase the good cholesterol while lowering the bad cholesterol.

Avoiding trans fats, processed foods and moderating saturated fats are key components of Keto.  In fact, a lot of the baked goods that could contribute to higher LDL levels are removed automatically from your diet on Keto because they’re too high in carbs.  

Conclusion

As long as you focus on healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats while on Keto, you should see a reduction in your LDL cholesterol levels.  This means that Keto is actually good for the health of your heart and arteries. 

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