What Is Cholesterol, Anyway

No one seems to have anything nice to say about cholesterol, but the fact is that you literally couldn’t live without it. Cholesterol helps build the walls of every cell in your body. It helps you digest your food, and is even involved in keeping your reproductive system in working order. But it’s possible to get too much of a good thing. Your body naturally produces some cholesterol and absorbs more from the foods you eat. Cholesterol is found only in animal-based products such as meat, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, and cheese. In addition, your body converts some plant-based foods into cholesterol during digestion. If you end up with more cholesterol than you need, the excess goes into your bloodstream, where it begins to clog your blood vessels. That, as we mentioned, increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Understanding Your Cholesterol Levels

To measure your cholesterol levels, you’ll need a blood test. When you look at the results, you’ll see that there are actually two different kinds of cholesterol:

LDL (low-density lipoprotein). Often called the “bad” cholesterol, because it clogs the blood vessels. An LDL score of 100 or less is great, while a score of 130 or more means you’re at risk of developing heart disease.

HDL (high-density lipoprotein). Called the “good” cholesterol, because it actually removes the LDL. A score of 60 or more generally means your risk of heart disease is low, while a score of 40 or less may mean your risk is high. Ideally, you want your total cholesterol—the LDL number plus the HDL number plus other lipid components —to be less than 200. 200 to 239 is considered moderately high; 240 and above is high. If your healthcare provider tells you that your cholesterol is too high, you have several options:

Make lifestyle changes. This means eating less saturated fat and high cholesterol foods (meat, eggs, and dairy products), and eating more foods that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (nuts, olive oil, and avocados), which help decrease LDL cholesterol. It also means getting more exercise.

Take medication. Your doctor can prescribe one of several drugs that have been proven to lower cholesterol.