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Health explained: HDL vs. LDL

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

When was 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 and stroke, the vast majority of American adults are not sure just how high or low their low-density lipoproteins, LDL, and high-density lipoproteins, HDL, levels are. But what you don’t know, in fact, can hurt you.

We’re 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. Because as Tony Robbins says, “The more efficient your body, the better you feel and the more you will use your talent to produce outstanding results.”


Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is made naturally by the liver and obtained from food sources. While it typically gets a bad rap, cholesterol actually plays a critical role in how your body functions, 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). Let’s take a minute to talk more about HDL vs. LDL cholesterol.

LDL, commonly referred to as the “bad” cholesterol, carries cholesterol to cells throughout your body and can cause cholesterol to build up 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. 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 when learning about cholesterol, HDL and LDL.

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 ideal 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.

It’s always better to catch the problem in its tracks. In addition to checking in with your doctor, you might consider working with a health coach. Health coaches help you recalibrate your lifestyle choices, like diet and exercise routine, so you can live life in peak health.


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. The test can be performed with a blood sample.

So what’s considered normal when it comes to cholesterol test results? 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 HDL vs. LDL 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 monounsaturated fats, which are found in avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil.

Eat more soluble fiber. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. When eaten, soluble fiber attracts water in the body, which turns the fiber into a gel-like substance and ultimately slows down digestion, making you feel fuller longer. Insoluble fiber passes through the body more quickly, aiding in digestion but leaving you hungry sooner. 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 effects 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.

Don’t wait until it’s too late to change your HDL and LDL levels. Treat your health like the other areas of your life – set goals and follow through with them. By ensuring your body has the proper nutrients it needs and plenty of exercise, you’re setting yourself up for success in all areas of your life.

Header image © Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Team Tony

Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

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