One in three adults in the United States has high cholesterol, and more than 60% of adults with high cholesterol don’t have the condition under control. When left untreated, high cholesterol can increase the risk for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.
Because high cholesterol doesn’t cause symptoms, it’s difficult to catch without a blood test. Certain factors can increase the risk of developing the condition, including weight gain and having overweight or obesity.
In this article, I’ll explain the connection between high cholesterol and weight gain and discuss lifestyle strategies that can help manage weight and cholesterol levels.
Does High Cholesterol Cause Weight Gain?
Cholesterol is a waxy, organic molecule made and stored by the body. It helps the body build cells and make vitamins and certain hormones. Most of the cholesterol that circulates in the blood is made by our body, but we also consume cholesterol from the foods that we eat.
High cholesterol is a condition in which the levels of cholesterol in the blood are higher than normal (normal total cholesterol levels range from 125-200 mg/dL). Many factors can cause high cholesterol, including genetics, medications, diet, stress, and smoking. Having high cholesterol can increase the risk of several serious medical conditions, including heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
High cholesterol doesn’t usually cause any symptoms, including weight gain. In fact, despite the association of high cholesterol with weight gain, underweight and healthy weight people can also have the condition. But having overweight or obesity increases the risk of high cholesterol.
Types of Cholesterol
There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL)
LDL is often called the “bad” cholesterol because high levels of LDL cholesterol can form plaque in the arteries of the heart. Over time, this condition (also referred to as atherosclerosis) can cause the arteries to become hardened and narrowed, which can block blood flow and eventually lead to a heart attack. Optimal levels of LDL cholesterol are less than 100 mg/dL.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL)
HDL is often called the “good” cholesterol. HDL carries cholesterol from other parts of your body to the liver, where it can then be removed from the body. Having sufficient levels of HDL cholesterol can help keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries.
Having high cholesterol can be defined as having total cholesterol levels of 200 mg/dL or more or having HDL cholesterol levels below 40 mg/dL.
The Connection Between Cholesterol and Weight Gain
Weight gain and having overweight or obesity are risk factors for heart disease and high cholesterol. Still, it’s important to note that underweight and healthy weight people can also develop high cholesterol.
Other Risks of High Cholesterol
High cholesterol can increase your risk of several serious health conditions, including:
- Heart disease: High cholesterol can lead to heart disease, including heart attack, heart failure, and stroke.
- High blood pressure: High cholesterol increases the risk of having narrowed arteries, which can make it difficult for the heart to pump blood efficiently and lead to high blood pressure. One study also showed that women with high cholesterol are more likely to develop high blood pressure later in life.
- Atherosclerosis: A condition in which plaque builds up in the blood vessels in the body, which can lead to heart attack, stroke, and death.
- Carotid artery disease: When plaque accumulates in the carotid arteries. A major cause of stroke in the United States.
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD): A possible complication of atherosclerosis. PAD occurs when there is a reduced flow of blood in the peripheral arteries.
Tips for Managing Weight and Cholesterol
If you have a family history of high cholesterol and/or heart disease, speak with your healthcare provider about cholesterol testing. If you’re diagnosed with high cholesterol, your provider may recommend lifestyle changes and/or medication to help manage and treat the condition. Many of these strategies can also help you manage your weight if you have overweight or obesity.
Lose weight if you have overweight or obesity
Overweight and obesity can increase the risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. But research shows that losing as little as 5-10% of your body weight can help many people with obesity improve cholesterol levels and other metabolic health markers. If you have overweight or obesity, talk to your provider about healthy and sustainable ways to lose weight.
Regular exercise is an excellent way to improve your overall health. It can also help lower your overall cholesterol levels and manage your weight.
Eat a healthy diet
Eating a healthy diet can have a positive impact on your cholesterol and weight management. Talk to your provider about what diet is best for your lifestyle and needs. In general, it’s good to prioritize fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and lean meats, and to minimize foods that are high in saturated and trans fats.
Smoking increases the risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. Quitting will improve your overall health and benefit your cholesterol levels.
Limit alcohol intake
Limiting alcohol intake can help lower your cholesterol levels and manage your weight.
Follow your treatment plan
Work with your medical provider to create a plan to manage your cholesterol and weight. They may recommend taking medication for your cholesterol such as:
- Bile acid sequestrates
Managing High Cholesterol or Weight Loss with K Health
Just three easy steps:
- Answer a few simple questions.
- Meet your primary care provider.
- Get the care you need.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
A Prospective Study of Plasma Lipid Levels and Hypertension in Women. (2005.)
Heart Disease Facts. (2022.)
High Blood Cholesterol: What you need to know. (2001.)
High Blood Pressure and Cholesterol. (2011.)
LDL: The “Bad” Cholesterol. (2020.)