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