Cholesterol Values for Healthy Living
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in all cells of the body. Your body needs some cholesterol to work
the right way and your body makes all the cholesterol it needs.
Your body uses cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest foods.
Cholesterol is also found in some of the foods you eat.
Blood is watery, and cholesterol is fatty. Just like oil and water, the two do not mix. To travel in the bloodstream,
cholesterol is carried in small packages called lipoproteins. Two kinds of lipoproteins carry cholesterol throughout your
body. It is important to have healthy levels of both:
• Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is sometimes called “bad” cholesterol. High LDL cholesterol leads to a
buildup of cholesterol in arteries.
• High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is sometimes called “good” cholesterol. HDL carries cholesterol from
other parts of your body back to your liver, where it is removed from your body. The higher your HDL cholesterol
level, the lower your chance of getting heart disease.
• Triglycerides are another form of fat in your blood.
Why is Cholesterol Important?
Too much cholesterol in the blood, or high blood cholesterol, can be serious. People with high blood cholesterol have a
greater chance of getting heart disease. High blood cholesterol on its own does not cause symptoms, so many people are
unaware that their cholesterol level is too high.
Cholesterol can build up on the walls of your arteries (blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to other parts of
the body). This buildup of cholesterol is called plaque. Over time, plaque can cause narrowing of the arteries. Lowering
cholesterol may also slow down, reduce, or even stop plaque from building up.
What Causes High Blood Cholesterol?
A variety of things can affect the cholesterol levels in your blood. Some of these things you can control and others
You Can Control:
What you eat. Certain foods have types of fat that raise your cholesterol level.
• Saturated fat raises your LDL cholesterol level more than anything else in your diet.
• Trans fats are made when vegetable oil is hydrogenated to harden it. Transfats also raise cholesterol levels.
• Cholesterol is found in foods that come from animal sources, for example, egg yolks, meat, and cheese.
Your weight. Being overweight tends to increase your LDL level, lower your HDL level, and increase your total cholesterol
Your activity. Lack of regular exercise can lead to weight gain, which could raise your LDL cholesterol level. Regular
exercise can help you lose weight and lower your LDL level and can also help you raise your HDL level.
You cannot control:
Heredity. High blood cholesterol can run in families. An inherited genetic condition (familial hypercholesterolemia) results
in very high LDL cholesterol levels. It begins at birth, and may result in a heart attack at an early age.
Age and sex. Starting at puberty, men have lower levels of HDL than women. As women and men get older, their LDL
cholesterol levels rise. Younger women have lower LDL cholesterol levels than men, but after age 55, women have higher
levels than men.
Testing Your Cholesterol
Everyone age 20 and older should have their cholesterol levels checked at least once every 5 years.
High blood cholesterol is diagnosed by checking levels of cholesterol in your blood using a blood test called a lipoprotein
profile. You will need to not eat or drink anything (fast) for 9 to 12 hours before taking the test.
What Do Your Cholesterol Numbers Mean?
Total Cholesterol Level HDL Cholesterol Level
< 200 Desirable < 40 A major risk factor for heart
200–239 Borderline high disease
> 240 High 40–59 The higher, the better
> 60 Considered protective against
LDL Cholesterol Level heart disease
< 100 Optimal
100–129 Near optimal/above optimal Triglycerides Level
130–159 Borderline high < 150 Desirable
160–189 High 150-199 Borderline high
> 190 Very high > 200 High
How Is High Blood Cholesterol Treated?
The main goal of cholesterol-lowering treatment is to lower your LDL level enough to reduce your risk of having a heart
attack or diseases caused by hardening of the arteries.
Your physician will use your medical history and the number of risk factors you have for heart disease to calculate a risk
score for the chance of having a heart attack. These will all determine your LDL goal. The higher your risk is, the lower your
LDL goal will be.
There are two main ways to lower your cholesterol:
Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC)—includes a cholesterol-lowering diet (called the TLC Diet), physical activity, and
weight management. TLC is for anyone whose LDL is above goal.
Drug Treatment—if cholesterol-lowering drugs are needed, they are used together with TLC treatment to help lower your
Lowering Cholesterol with Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC)
TLC is a set of lifestyle changes you can make to help lower your LDL cholesterol. The main parts of TLC are:
The TLC Diet, which recommends:
• Limiting the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you eat.
• Eating only enough calories to achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
• Increasing the soluble fiber in your diet. For example, oatmeal, kidney beans, and apples are good sources of
• Adding cholesterol-lowering food, such as margarines, can lower cholesterol for some people.
• Losing weight if you are overweight can help lower LDL. Weight management is especially important for those
with a group of risk factors that includes high triglyceride and/or low HDL levels and being overweight with a
large waist measurement (> 40 inches for men and > 35 inches for women).
• Regular physical activity (exercising 30 minutes most days of the week) is recommended for everyone. It can
help raise HDL levels and lower LDL levels, and is especially important for those with high triglyceride and/or low
HDL levels who are overweight with a large waist measurement.
Along with suggesting that you change the way you eat and exercise regularly, your doctor may prescribe medicines to help
lower your cholesterol. Even if you begin drug treatment, you will need to continue TLC. Drug treatment controls but does
not “cure” high blood cholesterol. Therefore, you must continue taking your medicine to keep your cholesterol level in the
The five major types of cholesterol-lowering medicines are:
• Very effective in lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol levels
• Safe for most people
• Rare side effects to watch for are liver and muscle problems
Bile Acid Sequestrants
• Help lower LDL cholesterol levels
• Sometimes prescribed with statins
• Not usually prescribed as the only medicine to lower cholesterol
• Lowers LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and raises HDL (good) cholesterol
• Should only be used under a doctor’s supervision
• Lower triglycerides
• May increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels
• When used with a statin, may increase the chance of muscle problems
• Lowers LDL cholesterol
• May be used with statins or alone
• Acts within the intestine to block cholesterol absorption
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is made in your body. Cholesterol is also in some foods that you eat. Your body
needs some cholesterol to work the right way. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs.
Too much cholesterol in the blood is called high blood cholesterol or hypercholesterolemia.
High blood cholesterol increases the chance of having a heart attack.
Lowering cholesterol is important for everyone—young, middle-aged, and older adults, and both men and women.
Eating too much saturated fat and cholesterol raises the level of cholesterol in your blood.
Too much cholesterol in your blood can build up in the walls of arteries. This is called plaque.
There are no signs or symptoms of high blood cholesterol. Many people don’t know that their cholesterol level
is too high.
High blood cholesterol is diagnosed by checking cholesterol levels in your blood.
A blood test called a lipoprotein profile measures the cholesterol levels in your blood and is the recommended test.
It is important that everyone age 20 and older get their cholesterol checked at least once every 5 years.
Many people are able to lower their cholesterol levels by eating a low saturated fat and low cholesterol diet, exercising,
and losing weight if needed.
Some people will need to take medicines prescribed by their doctor to lower their cholesterol in addition to eating a low
saturated fat and low cholesterol diet, exercising, and losing weight if needed.
Information provided by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health.
Values for Healthy Living