I have question about cholesterol, as I know we can get cholesterol using vegetables and meat, so what is good and what is bad ?


2 Answers 2


Original Answer (posted originally as a Comment)

It is now accepted that high cholesterol causes atherosclerosis. Cholesterol a major component of the plaques that block arteries. 'Good' and 'bad' cholesterol refer to the way cholesterol is transported in the bloodstream.

'Bad' cholesterol is cholesterol in the form of low density lipoproteins or LDL, and 'good' cholesterol is in the form of high-density lipoproteins or HDL.

Or at least that is how it used to be. It is still accepted that high concentrations of LDL in blood promote atherosclerosis, that is high levels of LDL may still be considered 'bad', but drugs that specifically raise the levels of HDL have had serious adverse effects.

Check out this great article: Cholesterol and Controversy: Past, present and Future by Jeanne Garbarino, especially the section on "Deconstructing Cholesterol: “Bad” is still bad, but is “good” still good?". It is hard to know what the current position is. And check out the work of Brown and Goldstein.


Goldstein, in his Nobel lecture, famously said (see here)

Cholesterol is a Janus-faced molecule. The very property that makes it useful in cell membranes, namely its absolute insolubility in water, also makes it lethal. For when cholesterol accumulates in the wrong place, for example within the wall of an artery, it cannot be readily mobilized, and its presence eventually leads to the development of an atherosclerotic plaque.

Cholesterol may be synthesized in the body, or obtained from the diet. The site of biosynthesis is mainly the liver. Cholesterol and fats (triacylglycerols) are transported in the bloodstream as lipoprotein particles, which may be roughly described as a lipid core surrounded by a protein coat, and may be viewed as a mechanism for transporting insoluble fat molecules (by 'coating' them with a soluble protein exterior).

There are five main classes of lipoprotein particles (see, for example, Berg): chylomicrons, very low density lipoproteins (VLDL), intermediate-density lipoproteins (IDL), low-density lipoproteins (LDL), and high-density lipoproteins (HDL)

Cholesterol (and fats) are transported from the liver to other tissues in the form of low-density lipoproteins (LDL). High-density lipoproteins, on the other hand, pick up cholesterol and fats in the blood and from specialized cells and transport them to the liver. Hence the names 'bad' and 'good' cholesterol. (In reality, of course, things are more complex than this simple scenario: for a very readable account, see Berg).

The ratio of 'bad' to 'good' cholesterol, ie the ratio of LDL to HDL may be used diagnostically, and a healthy LDL/HDL ratio is about 3.5 (see Berg), but in view of the studies cited by Garbarino a low ratio due to high concentrations of HDL (rather than low LDL) might not be so great either. In fact, if LDL is in check, there may be no benefit to raising HDL (Garbarino article). But I suppose the physicians will always find a way to waffle (and to charge for the privilege).

It is a common misconception that plants do not contain cholesterol. (My original answer to this question attempted to promulgate this nonsense). In particular, plant membranes do contain cholesterol. However, the amount of cholesterol in plants is low compared to that found in animals (Behrman & Gopalan, 2005). But it is certainly not zero. The nucleus of maize shoots contain significant amounts of cholesterol, for example (Kemp & Mercer, 1968).

This great reference, Cholesterol in Plants, by Behrman & Gopalan (2005) suggests that the following paragraph should be inserted into biochemistry texts.

More than 250 steroids have been described in plants. Of these, perhaps sitosterol, which differs from cholesterol by an ethyl substituent at position 24, is the most common. But plants also contain cholesterol both free and esterified. Cholesterol occurs as a component of plant membranes and as part of the surface lipids of leaves where it is sometimes the major sterol. The quantity of cholesterol is generally small when expressed as percent of total lipid. While cholesterol averages perhaps 50 mg/kg total lipid in plants, it can be as high as 5g/kg (or more) in animals.

A great generalization is the following (Behrman & Gopalan, 2005)

Prokaryotes do not contain cholesterol

These authors also suggest that one of the reasons for the common misconception that plants do not contain cholesterol is "legalities of food labeling that allow small quantities of cholesterol in foods to be called zero".

I suppose we should not be too surprised that plants can make cholesterol. They can of course, make steroids, the Mexican yam being the original source of a precursor of a particularly important one.

A key enzyme in the biosynthesis of cholesterol is HMG-CoA reductase, which is the target for statins, and these drugs may be used to lower serum cholesterol levels (but there may be side-effects).

One interesting thing about the biosynthesis of cholesterol is that the final cyclization step requires oxygen which has lead to much philosophical and evolutionary debate (see, for example, here).

Finally, another quote from Goldstein

Cholesterol is the most highly decorated small molecule in biology. Thirteen Nobel Prizes have been awarded to scientists who devoted major parts of their careers to cholesterol. Ever since it was first isolated from gallstones in 1784, almost exactly 200 years ago, cholesterol has exerted a hypnotic fascination for scientists from the most diverse domains of science and medicine

  • $\begingroup$ You cite: "While cholesterol averages perhaps 50 mg/kg total lipid in plants, it can be as high as 5g/kg (or more) in animals." That is a factor of 100. How can this make you consider your first answer "promulgating nonsense"? Quantities do not count? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 20:32

The question as stated is unclear as to what is being asked.

If the question is whether ingested cholesterol from whatever source is good or bad, then the answer is that dietary cholesterol is superfluous to human nutrition since it can be synthesized by the liver, and the latest guidelines suggest to keep intake as low as possible.

While adequate evidence is not available for a quantitative limit for dietary cholesterol in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, cholesterol is still important to consider when building a healthy eating style. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines states that people should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible. 1

The main source of dietary cholesterol is overwhelmingly from animal sources. A meta-analysis published in August 2017 of vegetarian diets found that

Of the 8385 studies identified, 30 observational studies and 19 clinical trials met the inclusion criteria (N = 1484; mean age, 48.6 years). Consumption of vegetarian diets was associated with lower mean concentrations of total cholesterol (−29.2 and −12.5 mg/dL, P < 0.001), low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (−22.9 and −12.2 mg/dL, P < 0.001), and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (−3.6 and −3.4 mg/dL, P < 0.001), compared with consumption of omnivorous diets in observational studies and clinical trials, respectively. Triglyceride differences were −6.5 (P = 0.092) in observational studies and 5.8 mg/dL (P = 0.090) in intervention trials. 2

concluding that plant based diets reduced total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol ( as the latter is used in reverse cholesterol transport so with less circulating cholesterol there is naturally less to transport ) but triglycerides were unaffected.

So, if you eliminate animal based foods (and therefore the main source of dietary cholesterol) then the studies suggest you are likely to improve your lipid profile which is presumably one reason for the guidelines.

  1. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines-answers-your-questions

  2. Association between plant-based diets and plasma lipids: a systematic review and meta-analysis https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article/75/9/683/4062197


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