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Even though it gets a bad rap, cholesterol is something your body needs to help build cells. Your cholesterol number plays a major role in measuring your health. When you have your cholesterol checked, do you know what the numbers actually mean?
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the fats in your blood. Cholesterol is made by your body (specifically your liver) and comes from the food you eat. The liver makes all the cholesterol you need. The foods we eat can contain fats that cause the liver to make more cholesterol than the body needs. Foods such as meat, poultry and full-fat dairy contain saturated and trans fat, which trigger the liver to make cholesterol.
What’s in a number?
When you get your cholesterol checked, you have a blood test called a lipoprotein profile. Your total blood cholesterol is made up of several numbers, including:
LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol. This type can build up in the walls of your arteries and blood vessels.
HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol. This type helps by removing the “bad” cholesterol from your blood, preventing it from clogging your arteries and blood vessels.
Triglycerides and cholesterol are different types of lipids that do different jobs. A high level of triglycerides combined with low HDL cholesterol or high LDL cholesterol is linked with fatty buildups in artery walls. This increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
What do the numbers mean?
Optimal: Less than 100
Near optimal: 100 to 129
Borderline high: 130 to 159
High: 160 to 189
Very high: 190 or above
Low (considered a risk factor for heart disease): Less than 40
Good (able to help lower your risk for heart disease): 60 or more
What affects your cholesterol numbers?
Age and gender. As we age, cholesterol levels can rise. Women can have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age before menopause. After menopause, women’s LDL levels can rise and HDL can fall. Diet. Eating foods high in saturated fat and trans fat can make your total cholesterol higher.
Exercise. Being active on a regular basis can help lower triglycerides and raise HDL.
Family history. High cholesterol can run in families — your genes definitely play a role.
Weight. Being at a weight that is not ideal for your height can increase your risk for heart disease and can cause triglycerides to be higher.
Can you prevent high cholesterol? Can you lower it?
Heart-healthy lifestyle changes can lower your cholesterol and prevent it from being high in the first place.
Here’s what a heart-healthy lifestyle looks like:
Eat for your heart. Eat whole foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Limit how much meat you eat, choosing leaner meats, and try to eat fat in moderation. Limit your salt intake — don’t add salt to prepared food.
Get moving! Incorporate physical activity into your day by walking, biking or doing a hobby. Losing weight can help lower your cholesterol. Maintaining a healthy weight for your height can help it.
Quit smoking. Smoking can put you at risk for many conditions, in addition to heart disease and stroke. Find resources to help you quit — you can do it!
Drink less alcohol. Limiting wine, beer or spirits can help lower your cholesterol.