Cholesterol, a fatty substance found throughout the body’s cells, has a role to play in your body’s functioning. Your body uses cholesterol to help it produce hormones and vitamin D. It’s also important for helping your body properly digest foods and maintain the health of cell membranes.
Your liver produces about two-thirds of the cholesterol in your blood stream, but a diet high in saturated fats and trans fats can amplify cholesterol production to dangerous levels. When blood levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol are too high and levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol are too low, doctors recommend a combination of medication and healthy lifestyle changes, like weight loss, to bring cholesterol levels under control.
Weight loss, however, releases fatty acids into the bloodstream and can cause a spike in LDL cholesterol levels, among other blood changes. A spike in blood cholesterol due to weight loss is usually only temporary. While medication can be helpful for lowering chronically high blood cholesterol, it is usually not effective for high cholesterol linked to weight loss.
The Connection Between Weight Loss and High Cholesterol
Weight loss is a commonly-recommended strategy for treating high cholesterol. So why does it cause a spike in cholesterol levels? When you lose weight, you’re burning energy that the body has stored as fat. This has the same effect on your blood as eating fat calories from food, since that fat you’re burning must, by necessity, go into the bloodstream. When you lose 10 pounds, you’re releasing 35,000 calories of fat into your blood, although not all at once, of course.
Weight loss can cause your LDL cholesterol levels to go up temporarily, which can in turn cause your total cholesterol value to go up. HDL cholesterol levels tend to go down as the release of fatty acids in your blood causes an increase in LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, another type of blood lipid implicated in blood disease. The sudden influx of fatty acids into your bloodstream can temporarily cause other problems like insulin resistance, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure, too.
If you’re in the process of losing weight and your blood cholesterol levels are going up in spite of your weight loss, don’t panic. It’s completely normal for blood cholesterol levels to go up temporarily as your body burns some of the stored fat it’s carrying for fuel. You won’t be able to get accurate blood cholesterol readings until your weight has stabilized for at least four weeks, and your blood cholesterol levels have had a chance to normalize.
Don’t Let a Spike in Blood Cholesterol Discourage You
If you’re working on losing weight to improve your blood cholesterol, it’s important not to get discouraged by temporary changes in your blood cholesterol numbers. Even if your blood levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides go up and your blood level of HDL cholesterol goes down during the weight loss process, weight loss is still a great way to control your blood cholesterol over the long term.
The spike in blood cholesterol that many people experience during weight loss is not permanent. As you settle into your new weight, your blood cholesterol levels will drop and may even dip into the normal range without the help of medication. Drugs used to treat high cholesterol, like Zetia and Lipitor, are most effective when high cholesterol is a chronic condition and not just a temporary side effect of weight loss. When blood cholesterol spikes during weight loss, you should first wait to see whether it comes down once you have reached a stable weight.
If you’re trying to lose weight to control cholesterol, a high-protein diet may help. According to research published in the journal The American Society for Nutritional Sciences in 2004, a high-protein diet is just as effective as a high-carbohydrate diet for reducing overall body fat and total cholesterol. However, a high-carbohydrate diet is less effective for controlling feelings of hunger, and might make it difficult to stick with the diet over the long term.
Exercise is also a powerful tool for lowering your cholesterol. If weight loss is your goal, exercise can help, but moderate activity on its own can boost your HDL cholesterol levels. HDL cholesterol helps cleanse your blood of LDL particles, so a higher HDL cholesterol level is a good thing for your cholesterol overall. A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2004 found that women who participated in an 80-minute dance session followed by a further 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic activity twice a week, plus a weekly home exercise session, experienced an average total cholesterol reduction of nine percent, and an average LDL cholesterol reduction of 9.6 percent. But you don’t have to exercise for hours on end. Set aside 30 minutes a day for a brisk walk or bike ride, or if that’s too difficult for your schedule, break the 30 minutes of activity up into two or three more manageable sessions.
A temporary spike blood cholesterol is normal when you’re losing weight, because burning fat means releasing fatty acids into your bloodstream. Don’t panic, even if your doctor wants you to lose weight to treat your high cholesterol. You won’t know what your real new cholesterol levels will be until after you reach your new maintenance weight.