Understanding Cholesterol: The Good, the Bad and the Heart Healthy

Food choices can affect cholesterol levels

Part of enjoying the holidays means enjoying the food that comes with it. And while the holidays come and go in a flash, learning to balance your cholesterol takes time and some serious attention.

The American Heart Association (AHA) tells us that cholesterol (also called lipid) is used by our bodies to keep us healthy. Our bodies make some of it naturally, while some comes from the food we eat.

There are two kinds of cholesterol: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) or "good cholesterol," and low-density lipoproteins (LDL) or "bad cholesterol." When your LDL gets high, it can cause plaque, or sticky deposits, to build up on the inner walls of your arteries. That buildup narrows the blood vessels and keeps blood from flowing like it should, raising your chances of having a heart attack or stroke. HDL on the other hand, keeps the bad cholesterol from sticking to the walls of arteries. The higher your HDL, the better.

High cholesterol puts you at higher risk for heart disease. But the good news, you can get your cholesterol under control. For some people, high cholesterol may be due to weight gain, eating foods high in saturated fat (a bad fat found in most animals, their byproducts, and some plants), trans fats (trans fatty acids), or cholesterol, smoking, or lack of exercise. Starting a heart healthy diet or exercise routine may be enough to lower their cholesterol. For some, high levels of LDL run in the family. Changes in lifestyle and eating better may not be enough.

How do you know when your cholesterol is high? The fact is, you don't unless you have your blood checked regularly by a doctor. Talk to your doctor about having a fasting HDL, LDL, and triglycerides test.

Take a look at the explanations below from the AHA. This will help you understand the results your doctor will get from your cholesterol test and what they mean:

Less than 200 mg/dL- Desirable level that puts you at lower risk for coronary heart disease. A cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or higher raises your risk.

200-239 mg/dL- Borderline high 240 mg/dL and above. High blood cholesterol. A person with this level has more than twice the risk of heart disease as someone whose cholesterol is 200 mg/dL


Less than 100 mg/dL- Optimal

100-129 mg/dL- Near or above optimal

130-159 mg/dL- Borderline high

160-189 mg/dL- High

190 mg/dL and above- Very high


Less than 40 mg/dL (for men) and less than 50mg/dl (for women)

Low HDL cholesterol. A major risk factor for heart disease.

60 mg/dL and above- High HDL cholesterol.An HDL of 60 mg/dL and above is considered protective against heart disease.


Less than 150 mg/dL- Normal

150-199 mg/dL- Borderline high

200-499 mg/dL- High

500 mg/dL and above - Very high

Triglycerides, the most common fat found in the body, can also lead to heart disease. Low HDL, high LDL, and high triglycerides may speed up the fatty buildup in your arteries and, just like cholesterol, triglycerides are affected by age, gender, family health, and lifestyle.

What You Can Do

Controlling your cholesterol does take some work, but exercising regularly and watching what you eat can help.. Here are some simple tips for helping you lower your cholesterol:

  • Avoid fried and fatty food
  • Eat more fresh vegetables and poultry
  • Steer clear of sweets and extra helpings of food
  • Follow the recommended serving size on food packaging
  • Get out and get moving!
  • Walk around the block at least three times a week
  • Find an exercise partner who will keep you motivated

And above all, take charge! Everyone's body is different, so getting your numbers down may take more work than your friend. And even if your cholesterol levels are good, healthy habits will help keep them that way.

Here's how you and your doctor can take charge of your cholesterol:

  • Talk to your doctor about your cholesterol levels and how often you should have them checked
  • If your levels are high, work with your doctor to set goals and a treatment plan to reach them
  • Keep records of your past cholesterol tests and share them with your doctors
  • Take all medicine as directed by your doctor
  • Ask your doctor about living a heart healthy lifestyle, including:
    • Weight loss
    • Healthy eating
    • Exercise
    • The best ways to help you quit smoking

For more information about cholesterol and heart healthy living, visit the American Heart Association Web site at www.heart.org.

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