Can High Cholesterol Cause Weight Gain?

Weight gain can negatively impact your health, including increasing your risk of heart conditions, such as a heart attack. Obesity is also associated with high levels of cholesterol.

Cholesterol¹ is a waxy substance formed in the liver and consumed through food. Cholesterol is also produced by the body, so the cholesterol we consume can lead to excess levels within the body. 

Cholesterol carries out important tasks within the body. It’s a crucial structure in cell membranes, which control what substances do (and don't) get into or out of a cell. Cholesterol is also necessary for vitamin D and essential steroid hormone production.

But, despite its valuable contributions to the body, too much cholesterol can be dangerous.

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What effect does high cholesterol have on weight?

It’s not necessarily the cholesterol itself that triggers weight gain. Rather, it’s the tendency for high cholesterol foods to be high in calories and saturated fat.

Some high cholesterol foods, like eggs, are not necessarily bad for you. They may help with weight loss when combined with a calorie-deficit diet (a diet where you eat fewer calories than your body needs to carry out essential functions). However, the association between regular egg consumption and the risk of coronary heart disease and strokes is not clear. 

A meta-analysis looking at more than 450 thousand patients did not elucidate any increased risk for coronary heart disease and strokes with egg consumption. 

Ultimately, dietary cholesterol intake is less important to serum cholesterol and clinical endpoints such as strokes and coronary heart disease than saturated or trans fats.

On that note, there are two types of cholesterol. Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), which transports cholesterol throughout the body, is the type that leads to vascular plaques.

High-density lipoprotein, or HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol), collects the cholesterol in your bloodstream and moves it back to your liver.

Research² shows that people with high LDL (lousy) cholesterol levels are more likely to have a high body mass index (BMI) and weight-to-height ratio (WHtR), but the relationships were stronger between HDL (good) cholesterol and low BMI and WHtR measurements.

All these relationships indicate that healthy body weight is associated with healthy cholesterol levels. 

How obesity raises your risk of high cholesterol

Obesity is a risk factor for high cholesterol. Some of the foods we eat, like fast foods, are high in saturated fats. These foods can boost LDL cholesterol and cause weight gain.

Beyond that, many of the factors that lead to obesity also cause high cholesterol, including:

  • Diabetes Mellitus

  • Hypothyroidism

  • High alcohol consumption

  • Cigarette Smoking

Obesity can also raise the risk of dyslipidemia because of hepatic overproduction of VLDL, decreased lipolysis of circulating triglycerides, impaired peripheral FFA trapping, increased FFA flux from adipocytes to the liver, and formation of small/dense LDL. 

The importance of losing weight in managing cholesterol

Can weight loss lower cholesterol?

In their study³ of over 600 adults enrolled in a lifestyle change program at a Weight Management Center, researchers found that losing weight reduces cholesterol. In addition, they reported that the people who lost the most weight (more than 10% of their body weight) saw the most significant improvements in their LDL cholesterol levels.

Another team of researchers⁴ randomly assigned 197 men and 180 women with low HDL and high LDL to one of four groups: aerobic exercise, diet, diet, and exercise, or no intervention.

They found that participants in the diet and exercise group showed the most improvement, indicating that exercise, like diet, is an important factor in achieving healthy cholesterol levels.  

How much weight do I need to lose?

The good news is, if you’re concerned about your cholesterol levels and want to lower your “lousy” LDL cholesterol, it doesn’t take much weight loss to see significant improvements.

Losing as little as 5-10%³ of your body weight can improve your LDL cholesterol levels. However, if you’re very overweight or obese, it may be beneficial to strive for an even greater weight loss, as losing more weight is associated with more significant improvements in LDL cholesterol levels. What can I do to lose weight?

Adopting new habits to lose weight may seem daunting, but getting started is often the hardest. Simple ways to start losing weight include:

Getting more exercise

In their review of relevant research,⁵ one team of researchers found that if an exercise session lasts long enough and is intense enough, it can boost energy expenditure (calorie burning) for hours after the exercise session ends.

They also reported that a long-term aerobic (walking, running, jumping rope, and other workouts that get your heart pumping) exercise routine can increase a person’s resting metabolic rate (RMR) — the amount of energy (calories) their body burns at rest. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),⁶ healthy adults should aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and two sessions per week of strength-building workouts.

Eating more fruit, nuts, and seeds

Replacing saturated fatty acids (like those found in fast food or heavily processed foods) with unsaturated fatty acids, like those found in fruit, nuts, seeds, and fish, can combat high weight and obesity. 

Drinking water instead of sweetened beverages

Research⁷ shows that replacing soft drinks with water is associated with decreased body weight, waist size, and body fat percentage. 

One common culprit in weight gain is sweetened beverages. The consumption of soft drinks is a major source of added calories and refined sugar, contributing to weight gain and obesity. 

People trying to lose weight should opt for water rather than sweetened beverages. Everyone’s needs are different, but The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine⁸ recommend that, in general, men aim for 3.7L (from all food and beverage sources) per day and women aim for 2.7L. About 80% of that should come from beverages and 20% from food.

It can be helpful to keep a bottle of water at your desk or in your bag so you can sip throughout the day. If you don’t love water, try adding a bit of lemon or lime. 

When to see a doctor

If you’re worried about your cholesterol levels, especially if you have one or more risk factors, schedule an appointment to see your doctor for testing. Your doctor will work with you to lower your cholesterol through lifestyle changes, treatment, or both.

Likewise, seeing a doctor is a great first step toward weight management if you're struggling with your weight. Your doctor can guide you in building a suitable (and safe) exercise and diet program.   

The lowdown

Cholesterol is a necessary element of the body, but like anything, it needs to be well-balanced for good health. Being overweight is often linked to high cholesterol, and managing your weight can be an effective tool for managing your cholesterol levels.

Improving your diet, engaging in regular physical activity, and staying hydrated can help you lose weight, but consult your doctor before you make any drastic lifestyle changes.

  1. Cholesterol in the blood | Johns Hopkins Medicine

  2. Body adiposity index and cardiovascular health risk factors in Caucasians: A comparison with the body mass index and others (2013)

  3. Effects on cardiovascular risk factors of weight losses limited to 5–10 % (2016)

  4. Effects of diet and exercise in men and postmenopausal women with low levels of HDL cholesterol and high levels of LDL cholesterol (1998)

  5. The role of exercise for weight loss and maintenance (2004)

  6. How much physical activity do adults need? | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  7. Drinking water Is associated with weight loss in overweight dieting women independent of diet and activity (2008)

  8. Report sets dietary intake levels for water, salt, and potassium to maintain health and reduce chronic disease risk | National Academies

Other sources:

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