Clients are always asking me about cholesterol—what is a good range to have and what the difference is between HDL, LDL and total cholesterol. The numbers can be confusing and since September is Cholesterol Education Month, it’s the perfect time for me to clear about the confusion about cholesterol.
Cholesterol gets a bad rap and that is because many Americans have high cholesterol. I’ll talk about that in just a moment. What I want to say right now is that our bodies need some cholesterol. A waxy, fat-like substance, cholesterol helps build cell membranes, produce hormones, and keep your metabolism in check.
Where cholesterol comes from
Your liver makes some of your cholesterol. You also get cholesterol from products that derive from animals, including meat, dairy, and eggs—this is called dietary cholesterol. Some oils like palm and coconut can trigger your liver to make cholesterol.
Some high cholesterol foods might not immediately come to mind, such as baked goods. What is often found in baked goods? Butter—a dairy product that is high in cholesterol!
When cholesterol causes problems
The problem with cholesterol is that when we consume too much, it becomes a risk to our health, particularly our heart health. Cholesterol can attach to other substances in the arteries, which narrows them and bakes blood flow difficult, increasing your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Types of cholesterol
There are two types of cholesterol, LDL (low density lipoprotein) which is bad, and HDL (high density lipoprotein) is good. An easy way to remember it is to think of LDL as a Loser and HDL as a Hero. You can also use the words lower and higher as reminders—you want to keep your LDL lower and your HDL higher. Too much of the bad and not enough of the good, will increase the likelihood that fatty buildup will form in the arteries that feed your brain and heart.
HDL cholesterol carries the LDL out of your arteries and back to your liver where it is broken down and processed by your body.
In addition to HDL and LDL cholesterols, there is a third component called triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat that your body stores for energy. Too much triglycerides combined with a low HDL level and a high LDL level further increases your risk of heart disease or stroke.
Your total cholesterol is calculated by adding your HDL, LDL and 20 percent of your triglycerides.
What do the numbers mean?
In order to determine your cholesterol levels, your doctor will order what’s referred to as a lipid profile. This is a simple blood test.
Here’s what to know about the numbers.
Healthy numbers are as follows:
Your total cholesterol should be below 200.
Optimal LDL levels are below 100; near optimal levels are between 100-129.
Optimal HDL levels are above 60.
Triglycerides should be below 150.
Now, here comes yet another number. This is your cholesterol ratio. This is your total cholesterol to HDL ratio. You want to aim for a ratio of 5 or less; a ratio of 3.5 or lower is highly desirable. This ratio sometimes suggests that even if your total cholesterol is high, you may have a good ratio. For example, say you have an HDL of 110 and a total cholesterol level of 220. You ratio is 2.0, which is very good because of your high HDL level. The opposite can also be true. For example, you may have a total cholesterol of 180, which is desirable, but say your HDL is only 33. In this case, your ratio is 5.45 which is undesirable.
Now that you know what cholesterol is, stay tuned to my next two cholesterol blogs. One will give general tips on how to lower your Total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, with tips on how to also increase HDL cholesterol. The blog after that will focus on cooking for healthy cholesterol levels.