CareAGE Connections

Cholesterol – the Good, the Bad and the Confusing

photo of high-fat foods

Many years ago, you may have gotten just a single cholesterol number from your doctor. Today, it’s likely that you receive several numbers – an overall score, then a separate number for HDL (high-density lipoprotein), and one for LDL (low-density lipoprotein). You may have even gotten information about whether your cholesterol is made up of large particles or small ones. With so much information, it can be a challenge to determine exactly what these numbers mean.  

The good

First, cholesterol is a substance that is manufactured by the body to perform a variety of essential functions, including:

  • Helping in the production of essential hormones
  • Helping in the production of bile, which helps digest fatty foods
  • Synthesizing vitamin D

Second, there are two types of cholesterol, which we mentioned above – HDL (the “good” cholesterol) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein, the “bad” cholesterol). HDL can remove bad cholesterol from the body. HDL actually cleans the walls of your arteries, ridding the body of the buildup of plaque caused by LDL.

The bad

LDL is the kind that tends to deposit on the walls of your arteries, which can lead to plaque growth and, eventually atherosclerosis, which can block the free flow of blood throughout your body, leading to heart attack and/or stroke.

The confusing

The numbers you get from your doctor by themselves are not enough to predict your risk of disease or illness. They’re simply one indicator that is part of a much larger picture. Other risk factors including your age, blood pressure, and whether or not you smoke. That being said, here’s some general guidelines of what to look for:

Total cholesterol: Ideally, should be below 200. The lower the number, the better.
LDL cholesterol: Ideally, below 130. The lower the number, the better.
HDL cholesterol: Ideally, above 60. The higher the number, the better.

Additionally, there has been some controversy about whether or not foods high in cholesterol raise your serum cholesterol (the numbers you get from your doctor). Some people say yes, some say no, and other studies are inconclusive. As we discussed in this post, much research suggests that there is little to no correlation between the two. Researchers are beginning to understand that the relationship between cholesterol and the body is extremely complicated, including the fact that people may process the cholesterol they eat differently. It’s possible that a diet high in cholesterol may raise one person’s cholesterol, but not another’s.

And if all this weren’t confusing enough, there are now tests that measure the size of the particles that make up LDL. According to the American Heart Association, the smaller the particles, the greater damage they can do. If you have high cholesterol, you may want to check for particle size, as large-particle LDL may lessen your reasons for concern.

With so much information out there, it can be confusing to know what to do.

How to make sense of it all

Here’s some tips that can help improve your cholesterol numbers and benefit your overall health:

  • Eat well – this includes eating a lot of fiber-rich foods such as oats, barley, and other whole grains; fresh fruits and vegetables; and limiting your intake of highly processed foods, and trans fats. Other foods considered particularly beneficial include healthy fats such as those found in wild salmon, sardines, herring, avocados, olive oil and nuts.
  • Exercise – just 30 minutes a day can pump up your HDL levels and help you maintain a healthy weight. Obesity is a major risk factor in atherosclerosis and heart disease as well as numerous other diseases.
  • Don’t smoke – Tobacco lowers HDL levels and quitting can increase HDL.

If you’re not sure whether or not you should be concerned, talk to your doctor.

This article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Speak to your doctor and/or a registered dietitian if you have questions about your nutritional needs.

Reprinted with permission from CareAGE Connections,

Categories: Healthy Aging