Top 5 common and overlooked causes of high cholesterol

Cholesterol: it’s a word we often hear, usually whispered in hushed tones as something to fear. But here’s the thing — it’s not all bad.

In fact, cholesterol is vital for our bodies, playing a key role in building cells and producing certain hormones. However, we need to pay attention when its levels tip the scale.

This blog aims to highlight the less-talked-about causes of high cholesterol. You might think you know the usual suspects — foods loaded with fats and sugars, or perhaps a lifestyle that loves the couch more than the treadmill.

But there’s more to the story. Understanding these factors is the first step towards managing your cholesterol levels effectively.

What are the 5 causes of high cholesterol?

High cholesterol is a common health concern that sneaks up on many of us, often without warning [1]. It’s like an uninvited guest at a party, causing trouble quietly.

To keep this uninvited guest in check, it’s crucial to understand what leads to high cholesterol in the first place. Let’s dive into the top five common causes.

1. Dietary choices

When it comes to cholesterol, what you put on your plate plays a starring role. It’s like a balancing act; too much of the wrong stuff can tip the scales towards high cholesterol:

  • Saturated fats: Often found in red meat and full-fat dairy products, they can boost your LDL (the not-so-good cholesterol). Switching to lean meats and low-fat dairy can make a big difference.
  • Trans fats: These sneaky fats hide in baked goods and fried foods, notorious for increasing LDL and lowering HDL (the good one). Reading labels helps avoid these hidden culprits.
  • Cholesterol-rich foods: Eggs, cheese, and shellfish have dietary cholesterol. While not as villainous as once thought, moderation is still key.

Small changes can lead to big results. Swapping out certain foods for healthier options doesn’t mean losing out on flavor; it’s about finding a delicious balance for your heart’s sake.

2. Sedentary lifestyle

Let’s face it, our modern lifestyle often involves more sitting and less moving. Whether it’s long hours in front of a computer or binge-watching our favorite shows, this lack of movement is not doing any favors for our cholesterol levels. Here’s why shaking up this pattern is vital:

  • Boosts good cholesterol: Regular physical activity can elevate HDL (the good cholesterol), helping to keep your arteries clear.
  • Lowers bad cholesterol: Exercise helps lower LDL (the not-so-good cholesterol) levels, reducing the risk of heart disease [2].
  • Improves heart health: Apart from cholesterol control, exercise strengthens your heart and improves circulation.

You don’t need to run marathons or lift heavy weights to see benefits. Simple things like a brisk walk, taking the stairs, or short active breaks during the day can make a significant difference. 

3. Smoking

Smoking is a habit that’s tough on your entire body, including your cholesterol levels. It’s a bit like playing with fire when it comes to heart health.

It decreases HDL (the good cholesterol). Lower HDL means less protection against heart disease.

It’s not just about cholesterol. Smoking damages the lining of your blood vessels, making fatty deposits more likely.

The combination of high LDL, low HDL, and damaged blood vessels multiplies the risk of heart problems.

Quitting smoking can be a challenge, but it’s one of the best things you can do for your heart. The benefits start the moment you stop. Your HDL levels can improve, and your heart and lungs begin to heal.

Think of quitting as an investment in your future health — a step towards a healthier, happier you.


4. Excessive alcohol consumption

Enjoying a glass of wine or a cold beer is a pleasure for many, but when it comes to alcohol, moderation is key — especially regarding cholesterol. Excessive drinking can throw your cholesterol levels off balance. 

High alcohol intake can increase triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood, which can boost heart disease risk.

The liver plays a crucial role in managing cholesterol levels. Excessive drinking can impair this function, leading to higher cholesterol.

While moderate drinking might have some heart benefits, too much alcohol can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, and weight gain.

If you choose to drink, doing so in moderation is the way to go. For men, this means up to two drinks a day and one drink a day for women [3]. Remember, a balanced approach to alcohol can be a part of a heart-healthy lifestyle.

5. Genetic factors

Sometimes, high cholesterol runs in families, and it’s not just about diet or lifestyle. It’s a bit like inheriting your grandma’s eyes or your dad’s sense of humor, but less fun. Here’s what’s important to know:

  • Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH): This genetic condition causes high LDL (bad cholesterol) levels from a young age, increasing heart disease risk.
  • Not just lifestyle related: Even with a healthy diet and plenty of exercise, people with FH may still have high cholesterol.
  • Importance of screening: If you have a family history of high cholesterol or early heart disease, getting screened is crucial. It can help you take action early.

Understanding your family health history is like having a roadmap for your own health journey.

If high cholesterol is part of your family’s story, it’s not a cause for alarm, but a call to be proactive in monitoring and managing your health.

How can I stop my cholesterol from increasing?

Managing and preventing high cholesterol doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Think of it as taking care of a valuable asset—your health.

With the right approach, you can keep your cholesterol levels in check and reduce the risk of heart disease [4]. Here’s how you can take control:

Heart-healthy diet

Adopting a heart-healthy diet is like giving a gift to your body. Here’s what it includes:

  • Fruits and vegetables galore: They’re full of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Aim for a colorful plate!
  • Whole grains for the win: Swap out white bread and pasta for whole-grain versions.
  • Lean proteins: Think poultry, fish, and plant-based proteins like beans and tofu.
  • Healthy fats: Nuts, avocados, and olive oil are great choices.
  • Limit the bad stuff: Cut down on saturated fats (like those in red meat and full-fat dairy) and trans fats (found in many processed foods).

Regular exercise

Regular exercise is a cornerstone of heart health. It’s like tuning a musical instrument; it keeps everything working in harmony. Here’s how to make it part of your routine:

  • Aim for 30 minutes daily: This could be anything that gets your heart pumping – brisk walking, cycling, swimming, or even dancing.
  • Mix it up: Combine cardio exercises with strength training for overall fitness.
  • Find fun activities: Choose exercises you enjoy. If you love what you do, you’ll stick with it.
  • Every bit counts: Even short bursts of activity, like taking the stairs or a quick walk during breaks, add up.

Quitting smoking

Quitting smoking is one of the best decisions for your heart and overall health. It’s tough [5], but the benefits are immediate and long-lasting. Here’s how to kick the habit:

  • Whether it’s for your health, family, or to save money, having a strong reason helps stay committed.
  • From support groups to counseling, don’t hesitate to get help.
  • Nicotine patches, gum, or prescription medications can be effective.
  • Keep your mind and hands occupied to distract from cravings.
  • Identify situations that make you want to smoke and avoid them.

Moderate alcohol intake

Moderate alcohol consumption can be part of a balanced lifestyle, but it’s all about moderation.

To enjoy responsibly, remember that up to one drink a day for women and two for men is considered moderate.

Opt for drinks lower in alcohol content and avoid high-calorie mixers. Don’t feel pressured to drink. It’s perfectly okay to choose non-alcoholic options.

Moreover, avoid alcohol when taking certain medications or if you have a history of addiction.

moderate alcohol intake

Weight management

Managing your weight is a key part of keeping your cholesterol in check. It’s not about chasing fad diets; it’s about finding a healthy balance [6]. Here are some tips:

  • Aim to lose one to two pounds each week, gradually.
  • Prioritize eating a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and balanced carbohydrates.
  • Pay attention to portion proportions to prevent overindulging.
  • Frequent exercise promotes weight loss by burning calories.
  • Tracking what you eat can help identify areas for improvement.

Closing thoughts

Managing high cholesterol isn’t just a health task; it’s a commitment to a better, more vibrant life.

We’ve walked through the key steps. It’s a holistic approach, where each part plays a crucial role in maintaining your heart’s health.

You’re not alone on this journey. Share your goals with friends and family; their support can be a game-changer.

If needed, seek professional advice. A dietitian or personal trainer can offer personalized guidance to help you reach your goals.


What is the biggest cause of high cholesterol?

The biggest cause of high cholesterol is often a combination of unhealthy lifestyle choices, particularly a diet high in saturated and trans fats.

Can you lower cholesterol with diet only?

While a healthy diet can significantly impact cholesterol levels, it might not be enough for everyone. Factors like genetics and overall lifestyle also play a crucial role.

What is the best exercise to lower cholesterol?

Aerobic exercises, like brisk walking, cycling, or swimming, are highly effective in lowering cholesterol levels.

Does smoking really affect cholesterol?

Yes, smoking negatively impacts cholesterol by lowering HDL (good cholesterol) and increasing the risk of heart disease.


The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.