If you’re confused by all the talk about “good” and “bad” cholesterol, you’re not alone. After all, the term ‘cholesterol’ tends to have a negative connotation – who knew there were different types? And how can one be “good” for you, and the other one “bad?”
We’re here to give you the facts about how HDL (the good type) and LDL (the bad one) affect your health, along with ways to make sure your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels are in the right range – and what to do if you’re not. Read on for our complete guide.
What is cholesterol?
Although it tends to get a bad rap, cholesterol is actually a necessary compound, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI),1 as it is used to make important substances in your body, including bile acids, hormones and vitamin D. A fat-like, waxy substance, cholesterol is produced in your liver and then carried throughout your body via your bloodstream.1,2 It is transported by substances called lipoproteins.1
There are two types of cholesterol: LDL, or low-density lipoprotein; and HDL, or high-density lipoprotein. LDL makes up the majority of your cholesterol and is often referred to as the “bad” type because it transports cholesterol to tissues throughout your body, including the arteries.1 Having too much LDL can cause cholesterol to build up in the walls of your arteries; this, in turn, might negatively impact your cardiovascular health and increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.1,3
HDL is considered the “good” type of cholesterol because it transports cholesterol away from the tissues to the liver, where it is broken down and then removed from your body.3 According to the American Heart Association, having high concentrations of LDL or too little HDL can cause cholesterol to build up in your arteries, increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke.2
What causes unhealthy levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol?
According to Harvard Health,5 there are several factors that can contribute to having low levels of HDL cholesterol. Your genetics play a part by helping to dictate how much HDL your body produces, but other – often controllable – factors also contribute to low HDL cholesterol numbers, including the following:
- Being overweight or obese
- Eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and sugar
- Not being physically active
In addition to lowering your HDL cholesterol, smoking can increase your LDL numbers; so can eating large amounts of saturated and trans fats. Genetics can play a role here, too, as can age, since your liver becomes less efficient at removing LDL cholesterol as you grow older, the NHLBI reports.5
How to tell if your HDL and LDL levels are in the healthy range
Your cholesterol levels are determined by blood tests called lipid panels. While your age, risk factors and family history will help your doctor determine how often you should be tested, the National Institutes of Health recommends the following as a general guideline for people aged 20 and older:6
- Men between the ages of 45 and 65 should be tested every one to two years
- Women between the ages of 55 and 65 should be tested every one to two years
- Younger adults should be tested every five years
What are normal LDL and HDL levels?
According to the NHLBI, healthy, normal cholesterol levels differ according to your age and sex:5
- For men aged 20 or older: Your total cholesterol should be 125-200 mg/dL, your LDL should be less than 100 and your HDL should be 40 or higher
- For women aged 20 or older: Your total cholesterol should be 125-200 mg/dL, your LDL should be less than 100 and your HDL should be 50 or higher
How to improve your cholesterol levels
If your cholesterol levels could use some improvement, the NIH recommends the following strategies:7
- Limit the amounts of saturated and trans fats you eat. Both of these fats increase your LDL levels.8
- Choose a variety of healthy foods. This includes fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains.
- Consider losing weight if you are overweight. If you are overweight or obese, losing weight can help lower your LDL levels; this is particularly important if you have a disease like metabolic syndrome, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Get regular exercise. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days.
- Manage your stress. Chronic stress has been shown to raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol in some instances.
- Quit smoking. Stopping smoking can increase your HDL cholesterol levels.
In addition, the experts at Harvard Health9 recommend including certain foods in your diet, as they either contain ample amounts of soluble fiber (which helps bind cholesterol in your digestive system and expel it from the body before it enters your circulation) or polyunsaturated fats (which lower LDL directly). Following are some of the foods they recommend:
- Apples, citrus fruits, grapes and strawberries
- Oats (like this Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal)
- Whole grains (like whole grain bread, brown rice and quinoa)
- Beans (like chickpeas, pinto beans and black beans)
- Fatty fish (like salmon, tuna and halibut)
- Nuts (try garnishing your next dish with a few nuts, like this Pecan Glazed Chicken)
If your goals include weight loss, remember to keep your portion sizes in check – especially high-calorie options like nuts and oils. Check out this handy portion size guide for some helpful visual cues.
Interestingly, while some experts say that eating cholesterol-rich foods can increase the levels of cholesterol in your blood, the Cleveland Clinic10 reports that research has shown a weak correlation, at best, between the cholesterol in foods – called dietary cholesterol – and the cholesterol in your blood. In fact, the Cleveland Clinic explains, scientists have discovered that dietary cholesterol does not raise blood-cholesterol levels for most people, and that your genetics play a more significant role when it comes to your cholesterol levels. Experts do point out, however, that trans-fats (which are found in most baked goods, vegetable oils and fried foods) are still a concern. Also, people with certain health problems, including diabetes, should avoid cholesterol-rich foods. Be sure to check with your doctor to see what he or she advises.
We hope our guide to the differences between HDL and LDL cholesterol have helped clarify this important topic, and maybe even inspired you to make lifestyle changes that can help get your HDL and LDL numbers into the healthy range … or to keep them right where they should be!
Are you looking to create a healthier diet? Jenny Craig can help! Contact us for a free appointment and get started on the path to better health today.
Carole Anderson Lucia
Carole is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California who specializes in health and wellness topics. Her work has appeared in Parents, Fit Pregnancy, Mom & Baby, Yahoo News, Viv magazine and Lifescript. She's won several national awards for her work including a National Science Award and two National Health Information awards. A frequent contributor to Jenny Craig’s Blog, Healthy Habits, she enjoys gardening, spending time at the beach and adopting far too many rescue animals in her spare time.
Favorite healthy snack: jicama dipped in homemade hummus
Reviewed By Briana Rodriquez, RDN
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and is written by experienced health and lifestyle contributors and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on the topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
This article contains trusted sources. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.