Blood Cholesterol 101

Fresh sliced butter on the wooden plate

We all know cholesterol isn’t great for us, so what is it doing in our blood? You’ll be glad to know that cholesterol is actually essential for health: We need it to form certain hormones and to build up all our cellular membranes. The problem is when we have too much of this sticky, waxy substance in the blood.

Your blood cholesterol numbers are how your doctor gauges how much cholesterol is in your blood, and are used to predict your chances of getting heart disease. High amounts of cholesterol in the blood increases the chance that it will build up and form plaque on the artery wall. When this happens, your heart has to work that much harder to pump blood to the rest of your body. It may even lead to a heart attack or stroke if your vessels become blocked.

There are four measurements for blood cholesterol:

1. LDL Cholesterol (“Bad” Cholesterol)

LDL cholesterol can lead to the formation of plaque, a waxy deposit that can clog blood vessels. Clogged arteries can eventually result in a heart attack or stroke. Clogging in small vessels in the arms and legs can lead to peripheral artery disease.

LDL Cholesterol (mg/dL) Result
</=129 Desirable
130–159 Borderline High
>/=160 High

2. HDL Cholesterol (“Good” Cholesterol)

HDL cholesterol’s role is to find and carry excess LDL cholesterol back to the liver so it can be processed and removed. An optimal level of HDL may protect against heart attack and stroke.

HDL Cholesterol (mg/dL) Result
>/=60 Best
40–59 Low Risk
<40 Risk for Heart Disease

3. Triglycerides

Okay, triglycerides aren’t a form of blood cholesterol, they’re actually fat. Triglycerides do work hand-in-hand with cholesterol to increase your risk for heart issues, though. High levels of triglycerides in the blood are linked to atherosclerosis, a condition where plaque builds up in your arteries.

An increased level of triglycerides can be caused by multiple lifestyle factors: obesity, physical inactivity, cigarette smoking, excess alcohol consumption and a diet very high in carbohydrates.

Triglycerides (mg/dL) Result
<150 Desirable
150–199 Borderline High Risk
>/=200 High Risk

4. Total Cholesterol

Your total cholesterol is calculated using the following equation: HDL + LDL + 20 percent of your triglyceride level.

Total Cholesterol (mg/dL) Result
<200 Desirable
200–239 Borderline High Risk
>/=240 High

What if My Cholesterol Is Off? (+3 Tips)

Having abnormal numbers for LDL, HDL, total cholesterol and triglycerides increases your risk for heart disease. Rest assured, these numbers can be improved through lifestyle changes. Here are a few tips to launch you on the right path:

  1. Make oats your breakfast of choice. Oatmeal is a versatile breakfast cereal that’s also high in soluble fiber, a nutrient that may help lower your total and LDL-cholesterol. Bonus points for adding fruits high in soluble fiber such as bananas, apples and pears. 
  2. Plan two dinners every week featuring fish. Fatty fish is high in omega-3 fats, which has been shown to reduce your overall risk for heart disease. Sadly, many of us don’t get enough of this important fat in our diet! So, forgo the usual chicken, beef and pork in favor of mackerel, trout, herring, salmon, tuna and halibut. For inspiration, check out Zipongo’s seafood recipes category.
  3. Get your cardio on! Activities that get your heart pumping have been shown to bring your cholesterol profile back in balance. Exercise can increase your HDL cholesterol (aka “good” cholesterol) and decrease inflammation. So, go on! Get out there and dance, run, jog or power walk to a healthier heart.

To learn more about other key health numbers, check out Body Composition 101, Blood Sugar 101 and Blood Pressure 101

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