Your cholesterol results and making changes

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HDL, LDL, total cholesterol, triglycerides, this one high, this one low. It sounds like a confusing bowl of alphabet soup. What is it? It is cholesterol and all the confusing terms that go along with it. Let’s try to understand a lipid profile!

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy fat-like substance found in animals but not plants. It is present in cells of the body (especially in the liver) and travels through the blood stream. Even people who don’t consume any cholesterol still have it in their cells. It’s necessary to make hormones and vitamin D and is used in bile to help digest food. Your body will make the cholesterol it needs. (Learn even more about cholesterol in this article from the National Institute of Health.)

cholesterol blood test
Photo: Kenny Holston 21/flickr

Understanding the components of cholesterol

Often when we get blood work done, there’s a report on total cholesterol. This number is important to know but alone it’s not quite as important as the components.

LDL cholesterol stands for low density lipoproteins and is often called “bad” cholesterol (L is lousy). This cholesterol is sticky and slow moving and will often stick to the walls of arteries where its involved in forming and building obstructions called plaque. The reason this is dangerous is that this plaque can eventually obstruct the vessel  or even worse can break away and cause a further blockage in an artery—one in an artery supplying the heart would lead to a heart attack, while one in an artery to the brain can lead to a stroke (a “brain attack”). Obviously, these are scary things! It is recommended to keep this number as low as possible, ideally atleast under 130 mg/dL, with a value of less than 100 mg/dL considered optimal..

Another component of cholesterol is HDL. HDL stands for high density lipoprotein and this is called “good cholesterol” (H is Healthy). You want this number as high as possible, ideally over 60. HDL picks up plaque and takes it to the liver to be cleared from the body.

Triglycerides are the last most notable component of cholesterol. Triglycerides aid in the formation of plaque, like LDL cholesterol does. Ideally, you definitely want this number under 200 mg/dL, but the lower the better, many current sources say as low as 150 mg/dL.. The formation of plaque can lead to same issues mentioned above.

Help me understand my numbers

Below is a chart from the National Cholesterol Education Program that makes sense of the numbers. If yours fall in the borderline or high categories, or you have diabetes which in itself leads to increased risks, don’t delay in consulting with your doctor.

Total Cholesterol Level
Less than 200mg/dLDesirable
200-239 mg/dLBorderline high
240mg/dL and aboveHigh
LDL (Bad) Cholesterol Level
LDL Cholesterol Category
Less than 100mg/dLOptimal
100-129mg/dLNear optimal/above optimal
130-159 mg/dLBorderline high
160-189 mg/dLHigh
190 mg/dL and aboveVery High
HDL (Good) Cholesterol Level
HDL Cholesterol Category
Less than 40 mg/dLA major risk factor for heart disease
40—59 mg/dLThe higher, the better
60 mg/dL and higherConsidered protective against heart disease


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