Dr. Mersad Alimoradi 04 Jul 2021

This Article was updated on 4th July 2021

Cholesterol is a fat molecule synthesized by the body to serve various vital and structural functions. Your body produces these molecules on its own, and also absorbs it from foods you eat, especially animal sources like meat, dairy, and eggs.

High levels of cholesterol in your blood is known to cause heart and blood vessel diseases. Cholesterol can bind to other substances in your bloodstream and clog up your arteries which can lead to a heart attack or a stroke.

Types of Cholesterol

You’ve probably heard of LDL, HDL, and VLDL cholesterol, which are different types of cholesterol, and that some are “bad” and some are “good”. In general, LDL cholesterol is termed “bad” cholesterol for its tendency to build up in vessel walls damaging them. HDL cholesterol is termed “good” cholesterol for its counteractive effect, where it transports cholesterol from your bloodstream back into the liver, preventing its buildup in your vessels. Having too much bad cholesterol (LDL), and/or very little good cholesterol (HDL) is dangerous, and can lead to the mentioned conditions.

In general, LDL and VLDL cholesterol are termed “bad” cholesterols for their tendency to build up in vessel walls damaging them. HDL cholesterol is termed “good” cholesterol for its counteractive effect, where it transports cholesterol from your bloodstream back into the liver, preventing its buildup in your vessels. Having too much bad cholesterol (LDL), and/or very little good cholesterol (HDL) is dangerous, and can lead to heart and vessel diseases. 


Cholesterol, with all its different types, is not the only blood fat there is. Another important blood fat is triglyceride. It is usually measured along with cholesterol since it shares many similarities with it. Triglycerides, like LDL, are also “bad” fats since they can clog up your arteries.

What causes high cholesterol?

Several factors could contribute to high cholesterol levels, and they all have to do with your lifestyle:

  • An unhealthy diet: eating processed, fried, and fast foods that are rich in saturated and trans fats is a major source of bad (LDL) cholesterol. These fats are also found in different sweets, fatty meat, dairy foods, and pastry.
  • A sedentary lifestyle: moderate and intense physical activity is needed to lower your LDL cholesterol and elevate the protective HDL cholesterol.
  • Smoking: like in many other diseases, smoking is a cause. Smoking raises your LDL cholesterol levels and reduces the HDL cholesterol level, tipping the balance towards more problems.

How Is High Cholesterol Diagnosed

To diagnose dyslipidemia (blood fat disorders), your physician will order a blood test called a “lipid panel” which will measure the following:

  • LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol)
  • HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol)
  • Triglycerides (another bad blood fat)
  • Total cholesterol (Composite measurement, it is calculated by adding good and bad cholesterol plus 20% of triglycerides)

But what do your tests mean? How can you interpret them?

Determining if your cholesterol or triglyceride levels are good or not depends on 3 things:

  1. How high each value on the lipid panel is
  2. How do these values compare to each other
  3. If you have any risk factors for diseases related to high cholesterol

Your lipid profile is interpreted as a whole, and the values are relative to each other. One value alone is basically useless when not correlated with the rest of the panel. In general, a healthy person will have a higher level of good cholesterol (HDL) and a lower level of bad cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides. The total amount of cholesterol is not as important as the composition:

➔    If you have high total cholesterol that is mostly HDL, and low on LDL and Triglycerides, then your lipid profile is good
➔   If you have high total cholesterol that is mostly LDL and Triglycerides, and low on HDL, then your lipid profile is bad

In addition to interpreting the numbers, your general health and risk factors (heart disease, diabetes, etc.) also go into determining what level of cholesterol is considered healthy for you.
For example, for a person with no risk factors, an LDL level of 110 mg/dL is considered desirable. For a person who has heart disease, 110 mg/dL is too high. People at risk need to maintain much lower levels of bad cholesterol to be protected from further complications.

Reference Range

In order to properly interpret your cholesterol tests, you will need to compare to the reference range

LDL Cholesterol

  • Desirable: 100-129 mg/dL
  • Borderline high: 130-159 mg/dL
  • High: 160-189 mg/dL
  • Very High: 190 mg/dL and above

Note that in people with diabetes, heart disease, or a history of strokes, a level above 100 mg/dL is considered high

HDL Cholesterol


  • Bad: Below 40 mg/dL
  • Better: 40-59 mg/dL
  • Best: 60 mg/dL and above
  • Bad: Below 40 mg/dL
  • Better: 40-59 mg/dL
  • Best: 60 mg/dL and above
Total Cholesterol
  • Desirable: Below 200 mg/dL
  • Borderline high: 200-239 mg/dL
  • High: 240 mg/dL and above
  • Desirable: Below 150 mg/dL
  • Borderline high: 150-199 mg/dL
  • High: 200-499 mg/dL
  • Very High: 500 mg/dL and above

How to Lower Blood Cholesterol

The good news is, there are many medications in use today that can help you manage your high cholesterol level and protect your body against its dire effects. Moreover, there are several diet and lifestyle changes that you can adopt to reduce your cholesterol level naturally without needing medications:

1. Take control of your diet

The thing is, a high cholesterol level is largely a dietary problem. The importance of controlling what and how much you eat cannot be stressed enough.

  • Avoid saturated fats: These fats are found in many of the things we eat, especially meat products. Processed and fast foods contain higher proportions of saturated fats, and hence it’s best if you avoid these altogether. These fats mainly increase your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and are not a healthy choice.
  • No more trans fats: The FDA is working on banning trans fats from food products for the ill effects they cause. These fats are usually found in fried foods and some forms of pastry. You can check the label on the product you’re buying and search for the ones containing “partially hydrogenated oil”, which is a more complex way of saying trans fats.
  • Choose foods with good cholesterol: As already mentioned, HDL cholesterol is considered a good type of cholesterol, one that protects your vessels and prevents them from clogging up. Foods like avocado,  olive oil, fresh nuts, fish, and some fruits are good HDL sources and would be a great substitute for unhealthy foods in your diet.
  • Opt for foods high in fiber: These foods can help reduce the amount of cholesterol absorbed by your guts, and hence would help drop your LDL. Foods like oatmeal, beans, fruits, vegetables, and seeds are rich in fiber, and you would be smart to incorporate them into your diet.
  • Try foods rich in Omega-3: These are a special type of fatty acids that you’ve probably already heard of. Many studies claim that Omega-3 protects your heart and improves your health. The most famous source of this nutrient is fish. You can try to replace red meat in your diet for fish to take the full benefit.

2. Exercise more

As already said, having a sedentary lifestyle puts you at a higher risk of having high cholesterol. You can work out around 30 minutes, 3 to 5 times a week to stay within the recommended physical activity level. Staying active can raise your good cholesterol (HDL) levels and protect you against various metabolic disorders.

Now, you don’t have to start running marathons right away, but you can start by choosing to walk more often rather than drive. Maybe invest in a bicycle and take it to work twice a week. With time, your body will be more used to moving and you can start doing higher intensity exercises like jogging or swimming.

3. No more smoking

As with most other medical conditions, smoking is one of the causes. It is well known that smoking harms your heart and blood vessels, and can cause many types of cancer. Stopping smoking can help raise the level of HDL cholesterol, enhancing its protective effects on your body.

4. Lose those extra pounds

If you’re overweight or obese, you should consider losing some weight through diet and exercise. Extra weight is an important cause of metabolic disturbances which include high cholesterol. Moreover, obesity can lead to many diseases like hypertension, diabetes, and heart problems.

You can lose weight by adjusting your diet and exercising a little more. Seeking the help of a healthcare professional to set a comprehensive diet and training program can be worthwhile.

5. If you drink, do so in moderation

Some studies have shown that moderate consumption of alcohol may increase HDL cholesterol, which is a good thing. Nevertheless, data is still inconsistent in this regard, but if you do indeed drink alcohol, make sure you do so in moderation. This translates to a maximum of one alcoholic drink per day for women or two drinks for men.

High cholesterol is harmful to your health and is usually a result of unhealthy life habits. The most important controllable factor contributing to high blood cholesterol is your diet. By getting your diet in check, and maybe exercising a little more and quitting some bad habits, you will probably be able to control your cholesterol levels and gain numerous other health benefits.

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About the Author:
Dr. Mersad is a medical doctor, author, and editor based in Germany. He's managed to publish several research papers early in his career. He is passionate about spreading medical knowledge. Thus, he spends a big portion of his time writing educational articles for everyone to learn.



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