Some things are good in abundance, but cholesterol isn't one of them.
Cholesterol is a fatlike substance found naturally in your blood and elsewhere
in your body. Healthy amounts of cholesterol help your body with jobs
such as building cells and producing hormones.
But when there's too much cholesterol in the bloodstream, it can build
up in artery walls, interfere with blood flow, and increase the risk of
heart attacks and strokes.
Good cholesterol, bad cholesterol and triglycerides
Cholesterol comes in several forms. Each of them acts differently.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol, can be hard on the heart because excess amounts in your blood tend to
gather in the arteries.
A buildup of cholesterol may narrow the arteries, slowing or cutting off
blood flow to the heart or the brain and increasing the risk of heart
attack and stroke.
So the lower your LDL cholesterol is, the better.
Your LDL cholesterol level can rise if you eat too much saturated fat found
in foods such as:
- Whole-milk dairy products.
- Egg yolks.
- Fried foods.
Trans fat—often found in commercial baked goods and stick margarines
made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils—also increases LDL
Limiting how much you eat of these kinds of foods is one way to help keep
LDL cholesterol in check.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL), or good cholesterol, seems to help protect the heart by diverting cholesterol from arteries
to the liver, where it's broken down and removed from the body, the
American Heart Association (AHA) notes.
If your HDL levels are too low, your risk for heart disease goes up.
Staying physically active, choosing not to smoke and keeping a healthy
weight are good ways to boost HDL cholesterol.
Triglycerides are another type of fat found in the blood. They are produced in the body,
found in fatty foods and made from other food energy sources, such as
In healthy amounts, triglycerides provide fuel for the body between meals.
But high levels may contribute to heart disease.
According to the AHA, treatment for high triglycerides may include lifestyle
changes such as eating healthier foods, controlling weight, avoiding alcohol
Know your numbers
If you're age 20 or older, have your cholesterol checked at least every
five years, the
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) advises.
The preferred cholesterol test is called a lipid profile. It measures your
total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides
after you fast for 9 to 12 hours.
According to the NHLBI, guidelines for total cholesterol are:
- Desirable—less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) of blood.
- Borderline high—200 to 239 mg/dL.
- High—240 mg/dL or higher.
An ideal LDL cholesterol level is less than 100 mg/dL. But just how low
your LDL goal should be depends on your heart disease risk, including
whether you already have the disease.
Your HDL level should be 40 mg/dL or higher, though it should be at least
60 mg/dL to help you lower your risk for heart disease. And your triglycerides
should be less than 150 mg/dL.
If you have high cholesterol, you may be able to lower it by eating foods
low in saturated fats, as well as exercising for 30 minutes most days
and losing weight if needed.
You may also need cholesterol-lowering medicines.
Your doctor can help you create a plan to control your cholesterol and
help prevent or treat heart disease.