You probably know that cholesterol is important and that there are “good” and “bad” versions of it. But what IS the difference? Here is everything you need to know about cholesterol and what it means for your health.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance made in the liver or found in certain foods. It helps the body make hormones and vitamin D, and it supports digestion. What you eat can affect your cholesterol levels positively and negatively.
HDL vs. LDL cholesterol
There are two main kinds of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL).
“We think of HDL as ‘good’ because it helps the body release excess cholesterol so that it doesn’t cause issues like building up in the arteries,” said Crystal D. Narcisse, M.D., internal medicine/pediatrics physician with Norton Community Medical Associates. “We think of LDL as ‘bad’ because that is the type that builds up in the arteries and causes blood clots, reduces blood flow and decreases the amount of oxygen to major organs.”
What is a good HDL level?
“We want you to know your numbers,” Dr. Narcisse said. “That includes knowing your cholesterol levels.”
When you get your cholesterol checked, you have a blood test called a lipoprotein profile. Your total blood cholesterol is made up of several numbers, including HDL and LDL.
The numbers for cholesterol measured in the blood represent milligrams (mg) per deciliter (dL).
Optimal cholesterol levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Total cholesterol About 150 mg/dL
LDL (“bad”) About 100 mg/dL
HDL (“good”) Greater than or equal to 40 mg/dL in men and 50 mg/dL in women
Triglycerides Less than 150 mg/dL
“Cholesterol is only part of your overall health,” Dr. Narcisse said. “So even if your LDL is high, you can make a lot of changes to help bring that into a healthy range.”
What to do if your LDL is high
Since cholesterol comes from foods, choosing the right ones can change cholesterol levels.
“Pick foods that are low in saturated fats,” Dr. Narcisse said. “You also can increase fiber and eat more omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in salmon.”
If your health care provider prescribes medication for high cholesterol, take it as prescribed.
Other lifestyle changes to consider include maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking and doing moderate physical activity most days of the week for about half an hour.
“We test patients for cholesterol levels every five years for people age 20 or older who are at low risk for cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Narcisse said. “You should have it checked more often if you have cardiovascular disease or risk factors like obesity or a history of smoking.”