Understanding Good and Bad Cholesterol

What is cholesterol? What makes “good” cholesterol good and “bad” cholesterol bad? It’s a question common to anyone who’s ever cracked an egg or ordered steak at a restaurant. But because the answers to these questions can be more than a little confusing, we’ve tried to narrow down the answers as simply as possible: what is cholesterol, how does good compare to bad, and how can you eat the right amount of one, and limit your exposure to the other?

What is cholesterol?

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), cholesterol is a waxy, fatty-like substance that lives inside your cells. Your liver produces it, and it is also present in the foods you eat. As a part of your cells, its function is to carry proteins by bonding lipids (essentially fats) to proteins so they can travel safely through your bloodstream.

What is “good” cholesterol?

“Good” cholesterol, otherwise known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL for short), is good because a high level of it may protect against heart attack and stroke, according to the American Heart Association

It does this by carrying “bad” cholesterol, or LDL, back to the liver, which then filters out cholesterol. You can think of it like a “little vacuum” sucking up the bad cholesterol from blood vessels, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

What is “bad” cholesterol?

“Bad” cholesterol is known as LDL, or low-density lipoprotein. LDL is considered bad because it contributes to fatty buildups in the arteries, narrowing them and causing a heart attack, stroke, chest pains, or other blood flow issues, according to the CDC.

How do I know what my cholesterol is?

You find out your cholesterol level by taking a blood test, called a “lipid panel,” perhaps during a yearly physical or at some other point.

Be sure to ask your doctor what a good cholesterol level is. Here are some very general numbers to use as a guide, per the NIH:

“Good” cholesterol levels for men age 20 or older: More than 40mg/dl

“Good” cholesterol levels for women age 20 or older: More than 50mg/dl

How do I improve my cholesterol levels?

Here are four tips for raising your “good” cholesterol and/or lowering your “bad” cholesterol:

    1. Eat a healthy diet. That means a diet low in saturated and trans fats, low in red meat, and high in “good” fats like those found in nuts. Avoid full-fat milk and butter, bacon, sausage, and other high-cholesterol foods. Here’s a great list from Harvard Health of 11 foods that may help to lower your cholesterol.
    2. Exercise at an appropriate level. Talk to your doctor about what amount of exercise is right for you. Depending on your health situation, 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise three to five times a week could lower your LDL levels and raise your HDL levels. 
    3. Quit smoking. If you smoke or use tobacco in some other way, quitting is the best way to prevent loss of HDL. For free help on quitting smoking from New York State, click here.
    4. Talk to your doctor about cholesterol medication. If your doctor deems it the right course of action, you may benefit from an LDL-lowering cholesterol medication