Understanding cholesterol: The good, the bad and the heart healthy

Food choices can affect cholesterol levels

To understand the potential risks of high cholesterol, it helps to understand the role cholesterol plays in our bodies. Here’s some helpful information, courtesy of the National Institutes of Health.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in all cells of the body.

Your body needs cholesterol to make vitamin D, produce certain hormones, and generate substances that help you digest foods. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs. However, cholesterol is also found in some of the foods you eat.

Cholesterol travels through your bloodstream in small packages. These packages are made of fat (lipid) on the inside and proteins on the outside.

Two kinds of packages carry cholesterol throughout your body: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Having healthy levels of both types is important.

LDL cholesterol sometimes is called “bad” cholesterol. A high LDL level leads to a buildup of cholesterol in your arteries.

HDL cholesterol sometimes is called “good” cholesterol. This is because it carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver. Your liver then removes the cholesterol from your body.

The higher the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood, the GREATER your chance is of getting heart disease. The higher the level of HDL cholesterol in your blood, the LOWER your chance is of getting heart disease.

Do your cholesterol levels put you at risk?

According to WebMD, high cholesterol may be due to weight gain, eating foods high in saturated fat (an unhealthy fat found in most animals, their byproducts and some plants), trans fats (another unhealthy form of fat), and cholesterol. Lifestyle factors like smoking or not exercising also add to your risk. Exercising or eating a heart-healthy diet may be enough to lower cholesterol, but for some people, high levels of LDL run in the family, and changing how they eat or exercise may not be enough.1

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.2

What you can do

Controlling your cholesterol may take some work, but exercising regularly and watching what you eat are great first steps. WebMD offers these simple tips for lowering your cholesterol:

  • Limit fried and fatty foods
  • Eat more fresh vegetables and lean poultry
  • Eat sweets in moderation
  • Follow the recommended serving size listed on food packaging
  • Get moving!
  • Walk around the block at least three times a week
  • Find an exercise partner who will keep you motivated

Above all, take charge of your health! Even if your cholesterol levels are good, healthy habits will help keep them that way.

For some people, diet and exercise aren’t enough to get their numbers down, but your doctor can help:

  • 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
  • Take any medicine prescribed by your doctor as suggested – the right dose at the right time, every time
  • Ask your doctor about living a heart-healthy lifestyle, including:
    • Weight loss
    • Healthy eating
    • Exercise
    • Quitting smoking

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

This material is provided for informational use only and should not be construed as medical advice or used in place of consulting a licensed medical professional. You should consult with your doctor to determine what is right for you.


  1. http://www.webmd.com/cholesterol-management/ss/slideshow-lowering-cholesterol (link opens in new window)
  2. http://www.livestrong.com/article/22464-not-eat-high-cholesterol/ (link opens in new window)

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