Nutrition Articles

What Is Cholesterol?

Get the Facts & Improve Your Numbers

Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like substance. It is a building block of body cells and hormones, makes up 50 percent of your nervous system, and is necessary for metabolism. In moderate amounts, it is essential to good health. But the dangers of high cholesterol, including artery blockage and damage, are well-documented. Other studies suggest that very low cholesterol levels can also be harmful and dangerous. The key seems to be making sure your body has enough—but not too much.

Cholesterol comes from two sources:
  1. Serum (blood) cholesterol flows through the bloodstream. Your body manufactures most of its blood cholesterol, but it absorbs some from the foods you eat. A total blood cholesterol level of less than 200 mg/dL is a healthy goal.
  2. Dietary cholesterol is found only in foods of animal origin, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. It is not found in plant foods. This source is easier to control. Individuals should limit their intake of cholesterol to less than 300 milligrams daily.
Knowing Your Numbers
It might seem obvious, but it can’t be emphasized enough. One of the best ways to lower your cholesterol is to track it. Have your doctor perform blood tests regularly so that you can both track your results and progress.

A complete cholesterol pictures is made up of three different things:
  • HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) is the good, Healthy cholesterol. HDL picks up and carries excess cholesterol from artery walls and brings it back to the liver for processing and removal. You want this number to be high—at least 60 mg/dL—to protect your heart. Levels too low (less than 40 mg/dL) are bad for your health, increasing your risk for heart disease.
  • LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) is the bad, Lazy cholesterol. LDL is made by the liver to carry cholesterol to the body’s cells and tissues. It may form deposits on the walls of arteries and other blood vessels. You want this number to be low. Less than 100 mg/dL is optimal (and up to 129 mg/dL is near optimal). Unhealthy levels are 130-159 mg/dL (borderline high), 160-189 mg/dL (high), and over 190 mg/dL (very high).
  • Triglycerides are the most common forms of fat found in food and in the body. The visible fat on chicken and steak is actually triglycerides. If you are overweight, your body stores the extra calories you eat as triglycerides. People with high triglyceride levels often have low HDL (good cholesterol) levels; this combination is considered by many experts to be associated with an increased risk for heart disease. Less than 150 mg/dL of triglycerides is considered normal. Levels above 150 are considered high to different degrees: 150-199 mg/dL (borderline high), 200-499 mg/dL (high) and over 500 mg/dL (very high).

High cholesterol, heart disease and obesity are the familiar steps in a tragic progression of declining health that affects hundreds of thousands of people every year.
  • Nearly 1 million Americans died of heart disease in 2002.
  • 52 million Americans have high cholesterol, a leading cause of heart disease.
  • 67 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, the top contributor to high cholesterol.
  • According to the American Heart Association, being overweight or obese is the #2 preventable cause of death in the United States.
The relationship is clear. For a healthy heart, the best course of action is often to lower cholesterol in large part by losing weight. Even without weight loss, there are many heart benefits to lowering your cholesterol levels.

Be sure to work with your doctor to develop a cholesterol-lowering plan that is safe and effective for you. These plans usually involve some combination of dietary changes, regular exercise, medication, and weight loss.

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Member Comments

  • In February 2015, the department of Health and Human Services released their Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
    And in that report, buried down on page 91, it states: “Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”
    You can see why they wouldn’t put this on page one. How embarrassing for them to admit that after 30 years and millions of people put on statins and low cholesterol diets, that cholesterol isn’t actually the problem? Not to mention the billions of dollars Big Pharma would lose.
  • There is so much wrong with this article I don't know where to start. Perhaps with the outdated maximum 300mg per day recommendation.

    Please copy and paste the link below for a comprehensive explanation of cholesterol.

    The Cholesterol Conundrum - and Root Cause Solution

  • The article does not go into what Cholesterol does. I am not a medical professional but from what I have read Cholesterol fights inflammation. High cholesterol may mean your body is fighting this. Given that if cholesterol is inexplicably high find out what might be causing inflammation before going on those awful for you statin drugs.
  • I've been working on reducing my cholesterol numbers for the past 6 months with diet and exercise. I'm having my recheck on Friday. Keeping fingers crossed. I would really like to get back to a normal level without medication.
  • HDL, LDL, and Triglycerrides have always been difficult to understand especially the numbers. Good thing I do not want to be the heart doctor, (Cardio) I only wish to code the claim still I might need to get a better grasp of these cholesterol levels. One thing I understand for sure is that calcium and oatmeal play a part in reducing HDL and triglycer-rides levels and too much of either one of those elements can be rather sedating.
  • I came here to find out the dangers of choresteroal that is too low. That's what the teaser said, but I didn't find it.
  • At 5' 2" weighing 110 - 120 pounds, and having a very active lifestyle (jogging most days) for the last 30 years, I was shocked when one year ago my doctor told me my cholesterol was too high. I took egg yolks, cheese and dairy, beef, and pork out of my diet and got it down 50 points in the last nine months. Only have 40 more to go to get it below 200 mg/dL. Not everyone has to be overweight to have high cholesterol! The physical exercise saved me. It would have been much higher much sooner had it not been for my habit of early morning exercise. This was a very helpful and informative article. Thanks!
  • Excellent article..covers the major facts that are a concern to most of us non-professionals
    I work out for a living. My total number is around 225. My doctor seems fine with it.
  • Actually, total cholesterol is:

    Divide your triglyceride level by 5 and add that to the sum of your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels. (It's a little more than HDL + LDL)

    Much of a person's cholesterol level is influenced by genetics (so one person may be a vegetarian and still have high cholesterol, while another eats lots of meat and has ok cholesterol). Your body makes cholesterol, so you get it even if you don't eat it. So you should ask your doctor if you need to cut back on cholesterol in your diet, or if you need a statin (if you think your cholesterol's high).

    But, if you're worried about your cholesterol, it's super easy to get it checked. You'll have to do a fast and then have blood drawn at the doctor (if you call to schedule an appointment, they'll let you know exactly what to do). Normally you get the results in a couple of days -- you can see what your HDL, LDL, and triglycerides are, and your doctor will calculate your total cholesterol for you. The great thing is that they can check a lot more than just cholesterol -- your blood cell counts, iron, etc -- that will also help to give you a snapshot of your health and any issues you need to address.

    My doctor mentioned that the total could even be above 200 if you have very high HDL (good cholesterol) and you'd be very healthy, so 200 isn't the magic number so much as being in a healthy range for each component separately. But 200's a good shorthand.
  • This article was quite informative. It gave just enough information. I just had my cholesterol level checked: 161mg/Dl. I was glad to see this number.

    Total cholesterol is HDL+LDL.
    It's up to 67% now?? Good lord, America! 2 out of 3 people are overweight!! Anyways, I'll probably have to cut back on my cholesterol, I often have 2 eggs for breakfast and I refuse to just throw the yolks in the trash...
    I would like to know more about Cholesterol as I have been on Simvastatin for a long time an now having such pain in my legs an groin area when I walk.
  • I happened on this article by accident, and found it to be quite helpful.
    I have some work to do on these levels.

About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

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