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Health explained: HDL vs. LDL

What you need to know about "good" and "bad" cholesterol

When is the last time you had your cholesterol checked?

Despite the fact that high cholesterol has been linked to a number of serious health complications, including an increased risk of heart disease, the vast majority of American adults are not sure just how high or low their LDL and HDL levels are. But what you don’t know, in fact, can hurt you.

This is why we are breaking down everything you need to know about cholesterol so you can take the precautionary measures necessary to achieve a healthier body and a healthier future.


Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is made naturally by the liver and obtained from food sources. While it typically gets a bad wrap, cholesterol actually plays a critical role in the functioning of the body, helping your system:

• Produce hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, aldosterone and cortisone
• Produce vitamin D
• Produce bile acids which aid in digestion and vitamin absorption
• Create and maintain cell tissues

Cholesterol is found in every cell in your body, and, without it, your system would not function properly. However, too much of it can be a bad thing.

See, cholesterol cannot be dissolved into your bloodstream. So it has to be transported around by lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoproteins — low-density lipoproteins (LD) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).

LDL, commonly referred to as the “bad” cholesterol, carries cholesterol to cells throughout your body and can cause cholesterol to buildup within your arteries. This “plaque” can eventually lead to arterial blockage and an increased risk for heart disease and stroke.

HDL, conversely known as the “good” cholesterol, absorbs cholesterol and carries it away from your heart and other organs and back to the liver, which flushes it from the body. HDL has also been noted for its anti-inflammatory properties. And recent studies have also shown a correlation between low HDL levels and risk of dementia and memory loss.


High cholesterol itself does not have symptoms, which is why so many do not take proactive measures to treat it. But given that about one in every six adult Americans has high cholesterol, and the fact that even children can develop it, it is crucial that you consider the facts.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC):

• Approximately 73.5 million adults (31.7%) in the United States have high LDL, or “bad” cholesterol
• Fewer than 1 out of every 3 adults (29.5%) with high LDL cholesterol has the condition under control
• Less than half (48.1%) of adults with high LDL cholesterol are getting treatments to lower their levels
• People with high total cholesterol have approximately twice the risk for heart disease as people with idea levels
• Nearly 31 million adult Americans have a total cholesterol level greater than 240 mg/dL

This is why the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends getting your cholesterol checked at age 20, and then every 5 years after that. This way, your physician will be able to monitor your cholesterol levels and help you develop a treatment plan if necessary.


A comprehensive cholesterol test, also called a lipid panel, measures your total cholesterol, the amount of “good” and “bad” cholesterol in your system, as well as the amount of triglycerides. When you eat, your body turns the calories it doesn’t need into triglycerides, which are stored in your fat cells. Individuals who consume too much sugar or alcohol, for example, would have high triglyceride levels.

So what’s considered normal? The Mayo Clinic recommends the following guidelines:

Total Cholesterol
• Normal: Below 200 mg/dL
• Borderline high: 200 to 239 mg/dL
• High: 240 mg/dL and above

• Optimal for people who have heart disease or diabetes: Below 70 mg/dL
• Optimal for people at risk of heart disease: Below 100 mg/dL
• Near optimal if there is no heart disease/ High if there is heart disease: 100 to 129 mg/dL
• Borderline high if there is no heart disease/ High if there is heart disease: 130 to 159 mg/dL
• High if there is no heart disease/ Very high if there is heart disease: 160 to 189 mg/dL
• Very high: 190 mg/dL and above

• Poor: Below 40 mg/dL (men); below 50 mg/dL (women)
• Better: 50 to 59 mg/dL
• Best: 60 mg/dL and above

• Normal: Below 150 mg/dL
• Borderline high: 150 to 199 mg/dL
• High: 200 to 499 mg/dL
• Very high: 500 mg/dL or above



While some factors that affect your LDL and HDL levels are uncontrollable — such as genetics and age — there are other factors well within your control:

Get savvy on the fat. Avoid a diet rich in saturated fats — which includes red meats, fried foods, egg yolks, or high-fat dairy like milk, cream, butter and cheese — and eliminate trans fats completely. These types of fats raise your LDL and lower your HDL. Instead, opt for monosaturated fats, which are found in avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil.

Eat more soluble fiber. There are two types of fiber — soluble and insoluble. While both have heart-health benefits, soluble fiber can also help decrease your LDL. Aim to fill your diet with fiber-rich foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Get active. Exercise has been shown to have beneficial affects on your body’s cholesterol. One study showed that men who exercise regularly may delay increases in blood cholesterol levels that commonly occur with aging. Another study suggests that exercise can increase the concentration of HDL, especially when accompanied by weight loss. Regular physical activity also helps reduce triglyceride levels.

Stop smoking. If you are one of the 46 million Americans who smoke cigarettes, the odds are you probably know that one of the best things you can do for your health is to quit. But did you know that if you already have high cholesterol, smoking can actually accelerate the damage done by your LDL levels? Research has also shown that smoking may directly decrease your levels of “good” cholesterol in the bloodstream. And when the toxins from the cigarette smoke are inhaled, your system produces higher levels of ‘oxidized’ LDL.

Lose weight. If you calculate your Body Mass Index (BMI) and find that you are obese or even overweight, losing weight can impact your cholesterol. Researchers studying the relationship between weight and cholesterol levels showed a negative correlation between BMI and HDL levels, and a positive correlation between BMI and total cholesterol.

Header image © Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Kerry Song

Kerry Song is a writer and producer with a background in economics and finance. Her passion is to create meaningful content that engages and empowers the audience to become more mindful and more compassionate with themselves and with others.

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