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Cholesterol & Triglycerides Health Center

Cholesterol: What the Numbers Really Mean

Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is a balancing act: the right approach to diet, exercise, and, at times, medication.
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WebMD Magazine - Feature

You may look and feel fine. But if your cholesterol is high, then your heart health -- and therefore your overall health -- are at risk.

"Cholesterol is a waxy-like substance made in the liver, and is also derived from the foods we eat. It comes in two forms: LDL, the bad cholesterol, and HDL, the good cholesterol," says Michael Schloss, MD, assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and co-director of the NYU Lipid Treatment Program.

LDL is considered bad, Schloss says, because it builds up inside artery walls, leading to clot formation, inflammation, and, eventually, heart disease. HDL, on the other hand, transports LDL out of the blood vessels and into the liver, where it can be processed and eliminated. Along with triglycerides, another form of blood fat, LDL and HDL form your total cholesterol count. Generally, when HDL is high and LDL is low, your body and your heart are healthier.

But what causes people to have unhealthy cholesterol numbers -- HDL that's too low or LDL that's too high? For some people, genetics is to blame. For others, the culprit is a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fat, which the body converts into cholesterol. For most, it's a combination of a genetic predisposition and a high-fat diet.

The Food You Eat

The usual suspects include foods high in animal fat, such as beef, veal, lamb, pork, and whole-milk dairy products. Foods containing tropical oils, such as palm, kernel, and coconut, are also bad for cholesterol, since they contain a lot of saturated fats. Whether foods high in cholesterol -- such as egg yolks and shrimp -- cause problems remains debatable.

However, many doctors err on the side of caution and suggest cutting back or eliminating these foods if cholesterol is high. The American Heart Association (AHA) says that for people with normal cholesterol levels, keeping total dietary cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams daily is adequate. For folks with high LDL, the AHA recommends keeping cholesterol intake under 200 milligrams a day

You can lower your blood cholesterol levels by modifying your diet. Reducing your intake of saturated fat and increasing foods high in soluble fiber -- such as oatmeal, beans, peas, barley, citrus fruits, strawberries, and brussels sprouts -- reduces cholesterol by binding to the cholesterol in your intestines so that the body excretes it. An added benefit: These foods are typically low in fat and cholesterol and packed with healthy nutrients.

Losing as few as 10 pounds is often enough to start seeing an improvement in cholesterol. Excess weight raises LDL cholesterol and may even lower HDL cholesterol.

Finally, since smoking reduces HDL, quitting can boost heart health. Studies show that once you stop smoking, your HDL rises within months (and sometimes weeks) to the levels of nonsmokers.

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

Is Your Cholesterol Level Heart Healthy?
What is your LDL (low-density lipoprotein) level?

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or
Answer:
Desirable
0-199
Borderline
200-239
High
240+

Your level is currently

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal.

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is borderline high. If your LDL goes higher, your total cholesterol level could become Borderline High. Consider reducing the amount of foods you eat with saturated fats and increasing physical activity. If you get more exercise, your level of "good" HDL cholesterol may increase, which could also help to keep your levels of LDL and total cholesterol in check.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL. The HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL because the HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. But your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as statins. Following medication, dietary, and exercise instructions should result in improvements.

Your total cholesterol level is High, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe statins or other cholesterol-lowering medications.

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