The Difference Between Good and Bad Cholesterol

Health Conditions

The Difference Between Good and Bad Cholesterol

Karen Eisenbraun, CHNC
By Karen Eisenbraun, CHNC
Feb 15, 2020
A woman with good cholesterol is showing her nutritious plate of food

Most people tend to think of cholesterol as something negative. We hear repeated warnings about lowering our cholesterol, and we know that high cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease. But, not all cholesterol is bad. Our bodies actually need some cholesterol, and it plays an important role in certain bodily functions.

Cholesterol is necessary for allowing the body to produce certain hormones, as well as vitamin D and other substances that aid digestion. It is also a building block for human tissue and aids in bile production.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the liver. Cholesterol is also obtained from certain foods, such as meat and dairy products, and it is found in all of the cells in the body.

When we talk about cholesterol, we often use the terms LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein). LDL and HDL are both lipoproteins, which are particles made up of protein and fat that carry cholesterol throughout the body. Proper levels of both LDL and HDL are necessary for good health.

You may also hear LDL referred to as “bad” cholesterol, and HDL as “good” cholesterol. Let us take a closer look at each.

Low-Density Lipoprotein

When we talk about high cholesterol levels that need to be lowered, we are referring to low-density lipoprotein. Nearly one-third of adults in the United States have high LDL levels, causing a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

LDL carries cholesterol to the arteries, where it can build up, leading to an accumulation of plaque on artery walls, a dangerous condition known as atherosclerosis that obstructs blood flow throughout the body and can also lead to blood clots. Atherosclerosis also increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease. Together, these conditions form what is known as cardiovascular disease.

You can have atherosclerosis and not even know it, as it may not cause any symptoms until a plaque ruptures or blood flow becomes severely restricted.

Certain factors increase LDL in the body, and many of them are within your control. These include:

  • Eating unhealthy foods, such as trans fats and sugar
  • Being overweight
  • Having a sedentary lifestyle

Other risk factors for high LDL include age, gender, and family history. Women have an increased risk of high cholesterol and heart disease after menopause, and men over the age of 45 and women over the age of 55 have an increased risk for having high LDL levels. If your parents or siblings have had heart disease, you may have an increased risk as well.

Ideally, LDL should be less than 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).

High-Density Lipoprotein

High-density lipoprotein, on the other hand, actually helps remove LDL from the arteries and carries cholesterol back to the liver, where it can then be broken down and removed from the body.

High levels of HDL are beneficial, as they can help protect against stroke and heart attack, while low levels of HDL are a risk factor for heart disease.

HDL levels of 60 mg/dL and higher are considered beneficial, while levels under 40 mg/dL can increase the risk of heart disease.

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Improving Cholesterol Levels

Fortunately, it is easy to influence both your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels with diet and lifestyle changes. Eating a healthy diet, being more active, and maintaining a healthy weight can all lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Eating a Healthy Diet

All of the conflicting information about what to eat or not eat to maintain a healthy diet can be confusing, but you can greatly simplify the path to a healthier diet by remembering a few simple rules. Follow the example of some of the world’s healthiest populations, who eat a plant-based diet, and, follow the 80 percent rule—stop eating when you are 80 percent full.

Following a plant-based diet does not mean you have to give up meat entirely, but it does mean that fresh fruits and vegetables should make up the majority of the foods you eat. Choose whole foods as much as possible, rather than packaged foods that have been produced in a factory. If fresh fruits and vegetables are not available, choose frozen foods over canned foods, which are often high in added sodium.

It is also important to reduce your intake of sugar and trans fats. Sugar is an ingredient in many foods, even foods you might not expect it to be in, such as condiments and salad dressings. That makes it important to develop a habit of reading food labels so you can choose foods with fewer unhealthy added ingredients.

Some foods that can help improve “good” cholesterol levels include avocados, green tea, nuts, fish, olive oil, beans, pears, apples, and berries. Even dark chocolate contains antioxidants that are beneficial to your health, but choose chocolates with a low sugar content.

Get More Activity

Getting more exercise does not necessarily mean you have to join a gym. What is important is to get more activity into every day. That may mean taking a brisk 30-minute walk during your lunch break or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. If you work at a desk, make it a priority to stand up more often; you can get up and take a walk while you are on the phone, or if that is not possible at your job, consider getting a standing desk. You can monitor your daily activity levels by wearing a fitness tracker and aiming for at least 10,000 steps every day. Maintaining a moderate level of activity on a daily basis is actually better than hitting the gym once a week.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Eating a healthy diet and getting more activity can help you lose excess weight. If you are carrying extra weight that is difficult to lose even after making some of the above changes, take a look at some other areas of your life that may need improving. Stress can cause weight gain by triggering the release of cortisol, a hormone that can trigger signals in the body that cause it to store fat in the abdominal area. Lack of sleep can also disrupt hormones that influence weight, as well as increase your risk of heart disease.

Calorie restriction is often emphasized when we talk about weight loss, but calories are only one part of the overall equation of body weight. Managing stress, getting enough sleep, and eating healthy foods all play important roles as well.

Taking this sort of holistic approach to your health does not just lower your cholesterol; it can also help increase your energy, reduce your risk of disease, help you sleep better, and increase your lifespan.

Karen Eisenbraun, CHNC

Karen Eisenbraun, CHNC

Karen Eisenbraun is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant. She holds an English degree from Knox College and has written extensively about topics related to holistic health, clinical nutrition, and weight management.

The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

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