Good, Bad, and Total Cholesterol: What Does It All Mean?

If you’ve discussed cholesterol with your primary care physician, you know there are different types of cholesterol that affect your body in different ways. However, many people haven’t been educated about cholesterol. Is there really good cholesterol and bad cholesterol? What is a healthy cholesterol level, and how do you manage cholesterol? Here’s some information to help you understand what cholesterol is all about.

What is cholesterol?

The liver produces cholesterol: a waxy, fat-like substance that our body uses to produce new cells. Cholesterol is a lipid, which means that it is insoluble in water, so it relies on proteins for circulation. The proteins that carry cholesterol through the blood stream are known as lipoproteins.

Not all cholesterol is the same, however. There are different lipoproteins that transport cholesterol. Some cholesterol causes plaque buildup that can clog your arteries, while other lipoproteins help remove excess cholesterol from your system.

Cholesterol levels typically increase with age, which means that it becomes increasingly important to monitor cholesterol levels and take steps to manage your cholesterol as you get older. Click To Tweet

There are two main types of cholesterol

The two main lipoproteins responsible for transporting cholesterol are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

LDL cholesterol is what’s known as “bad” cholesterol. Too much LDL cholesterol leads to fatty buildups that clog arteries — atherosclerosis. Narrows arteries make it difficult for blood to travel through the body, and it makes your heart work harder to pump blood. Excess LDL cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease, heart attack, stroke, peripheral artery disease.

In general, you want lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

HDL cholesterol is commonly referred to as “good” cholesterol. Research shows a correlation between higher HDL levels and a lower risk for heart disease. High-density lipoproteins help carry LDL cholesterol through the blood and back to the liver. The liver then breaks down LDL cholesterol, allowing the body to remove it as waste.

In general, you want higher levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.

What is total cholesterol?

Total cholesterol measures the total amount of cholesterol in your blood. This includes both LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. It also includes very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol, which is related to triglycerides.

What about triglycerides?

Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in the body. While they are not a type of cholesterol, it’s important to pay attention to triglyceride levels along with cholesterol levels. High triglyceride levels with high LDL levels and low HDL levels increase your risk for cardiovascular diseases.

What’s a healthy cholesterol level?

  • LDL cholesterol for adults should be below 100 mg/dL.
  • HDL cholesterol for men should be over 40 mg/dL.
  • HDL cholesterol for women should be over 50 mg/dL.
  • Total cholesterol should be between 125 and 200 mg/dL.

Cholesterol levels typically increase with age, which means that it becomes increasingly important to monitor cholesterol levels and take steps to manage your cholesterol as you get older.

Managing cholesterol

You won’t be amazed at the lifestyle changes that help you control cholesterol:

  • Eat more fiber, as in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Choose healthier fats, like those in fish, nuts, and avocados. 
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Limit alcohol consumption.

Keeping your cholesterol levels in check starts with getting your cholesterol checked. Talk to your doctor about cholesterol at your next wellness visit.