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Understanding Your Cholesterol: What's Good, What's Not?

High cholesterol is bad and low cholesterol is good…right? Although this statement is not entirely false, there is a little bit more to it than that. Understanding more about the different types of cholesterol, how cholesterol levels are calculated and what this means to you are important steps in keeping your heart healthy.

Let’s start with the basics, what exactly is cholesterol? The American Heart Association describes cholesterol as being a waxy substance that comes from two sources, your liver and animal products. To build cells, your body does need cholesterol, but your liver is able to produce all of the cholesterol your body needs.

Eating foods containing dietary cholesterol like meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products affects the overall cholesterol levels in your body. There are also certain foods that can trigger your liver to produce more cholesterol than it otherwise normally would. Foods high in saturated and trans fats as well as oils often found in baked goods, like palm oil and coconut oil, are all on the list of things that can cause your liver to produce more cholesterol than usual. These added levels of cholesterol can push your cholesterol levels from healthy to unhealthy.


Next, it is important to understand that there are two types of cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein). Dr. Iva Smolens, cardiac surgeon at Banner Heart Hospital explains that LDL is essentially bad cholesterol, while HDL is good cholesterol. Therefore, if your HDL levels are high, she says you’re typically in good shape. She explains that the easiest way to increase your HDL levels is through exercise and the way to reduce LDL levels is typically through prescribed medications.

The AHA explains that your triglyceride levels are also taken into account when evaluating your cholesterol. Triglycerides store excess energy from your diet and are the most common fat in your body. Having a high triglyceride level with high LDL and low HDL, is linked to fatty buildups in the artery walls which can lead to serious complications.

Calculating Your Total Cholesterol Score and Cholesterol Ratio

So, how is your cholesterol level calculated? The American Heart Association explains that the first step is taking a small sample of blood from either your arm or your finger. This sample is then tested for the levels of HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. Your cholesterol level will be measured in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL).

The American Heart Association shares the following calculation:

Total Cholesterol Score = HDL + LDL + 20% triglycerides

Harvard Health Publishing lists the following as generally desirable levels:

  • Total cholesterol: under 200 mg/dL
  • LDL cholesterol: under 100 mg/dL
  • HDL cholesterol: over 60 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides: under 150 mg/dL

In addition to total cholesterol score, you may have heard the term, “cholesterol ratio.” WebMD explains that your cholesterol ratio is found by dividing your total cholesterol by your HDL levels. As an example, if you had a total cholesterol number of 200 and your good cholesterol was 50, then your total cholesterol ratio would be 4:1. Your doctor can help determine the cholesterol ratio that is recommended for you.

Why Does It Matter?

So, why all this talk about cholesterol? The American Heart Association explains that cholesterol can build up inside your arteries making them narrower and less flexible. If a blood clot forms blocking one of these narrowed arteries, then you become at risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Therefore, having too much bad cholesterol or not having enough good cholesterol are heart attack and stroke risk factors. To learn more about your personal heart risk, take our heart age test.

It also helps to be conscious of your cholesterol levels so that you can take simple steps toward keeping your heart healthy. Dr. Smolens explains that watching your diet is key to maintaining good cholesterol and she suggests low-fat and low-carb diets. She also recommends a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day, 5 to 6 days per week and emphasizes the important of maintaining a normal BMI. She also stresses the importance of avoiding smoking and taking all your prescribed medications for your blood pressure and heart.

The American Heart Association recommends that all adults age 20 and older have their cholesterol levels checked every 4 to 6 years. They can then work with their doctor to determine their risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. If your levels are not where they should be, your doctor can help come up with a treatment plan that is right for you.

To find a doctor who can help, visit:

Heart Health Cholesterol Women's Health Men's Health Senior Health

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