A Quick Guide to Understanding Cholesterol

food concept shot with contrasting food

In the realm of cholesterol, there’s good news and bad news. Here’s the lowdown on both aspects of this waxy substance and top tips for helping you keep your cholesterol levels in check.

When we think of cholesterol, most of us think of fast food, cheeseburgers, bacon, butter — fatty foods that cause heart trouble. Did you know cholesterol in itself isn’t bad? In fact, your body needs this waxy substance to function — especially to build robust cells for healthy brain development.

cholesterol and food

But too much cholesterol can be bad for you. If your levels are high, you may develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels, making it difficult for sufficient blood to flow through your arteries.

The Lowdown on Cholesterol

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), for people over age 18, total cholesterol is considered high if it is more than 200 mg/dL. If the total cholesterol is more than 200 or if high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels are less than 40, your heart and brain may not be getting as much oxygen-rich blood as they need. This puts you at greater risk of heart attack and stroke. HDL levels greater than 60 mg/dL can actually lower your risk.

What is LDL cholesterol, or “lousy” cholesterol?

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is known as the “bad” cholesterol. LDLs transport cholesterol through the blood stream to the body’s tissues where it is stored. Some is deposited in the arteries, causing the buildup of plaque. Over time plaque narrows the arteries or blocks them completely, resulting in a stroke or heart attack.

What is HDL cholesterol, or “happy” cholesterol?

HDLs are scavengers that comb the blood, removing LDL cholesterol and carrying it to the liver where it is reprocessed. Additionally, HDL cholesterol — “good” cholesterol — maintains the inner walls of the blood vessels, keeping them clean and healthy. Higher levels of HDL cholesterol equal less LDL cholesterol and, in turn, decreased risk of heart attack and stroke.

What are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are the most common type of fat found in the body. Your body produces some triglycerides naturally. But most come from the foods you eat when you take in extra calories, which are then converted into triglycerides and stored for later use. Those who are overweight or have high cholesterol levels, heart problems or diabetes often have high levels of triglycerides.

Know Your Risks

Cholesterol risk factors include:

  • Diet high in saturated fat
  • Excess body weight
  • Lack of exercise
  • Smoking
  • Family history
  • Age (as people age, they are more prone to high cholesterol)

Certain medical conditions can affect your cholesterol and triglyceride levels, including:

  • Liver disease
  • Underactive thyroid
  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Pancreatic disease

What Can I Do to Manage my Cholesterol?

Keeping an eye on these key numbers is important. Our heart doctors at the Renown Institute for Heart & Vascular Health recommend the following to help lower your total cholesterol and triglyceride levels — and your risk of heart attack and stroke.

  • Consult your doctor. Assess your risk and determine the best approach to managing your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Set goals together.
  • Watch your numbers. A blood test can reveal whether your cholesterol and triglycerides fall within a healthy range. Consult your doctor regularly, and adjust your goals as needed.
  • Adjust your lifestyle. A heart-healthy eating plan, regular exercise and decreased exposure to tobacco can all lower your cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
  • Give your diet a makeover. Avoid saturated and trans fats. Choose lean cuts of meat and low-fat dairy. Limit sugar intake and avoid processed and fried foods. Incorporate fish, whole grains and soluble fiber (such as oat bran) into your diet.
  • Understand medications. Your doctor may prescribe cholesterol- and triglyceride- lowering medications. Take all prescribed medications as instructed, and work with your doctor to mitigate any side effects.

What Should I Eat?

Consume foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol and avoid trans fats:

Deep-colored fruits and vegetables  4 to 5 servings of each per day 
Fiber-rich grain, like whole grainbread, oatmeal,pasta andbrown rice


6 to 8 servings per day with whole grainsc omprising at least half


Fat-free,1 percent and low-fat milk products  2 to 3 servings per day 
Lean meats and poultry without skin  5 to 6 total ounces per day 
Fatty fish  at least 2 servings baked or grilled each week 
Nuts, seeds and legumes  4 to 5 servings per week 

Making these lasting and beneficial changes to your health can be challenging. Stay positive and think about your long-term quality of life to help keep you on track.