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Understanding Your Cholesterol Numbers

A blood lipid test checks levels of cholesterol and other fatty substances. Here's some more information about those numbers.

A lipid is an organic compound composed of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. Lipids include fat, cholesterol and other fat-like substances that do not dissolve in water. Blood lipids are fat cells that are transported to tissues and organs in the body by way of the bloodstream. Your body needs lipids to function, but a buildup of lipids in the bloodstream can clog your arteries, raising the risk for heart attack and stroke.

Blood lipids usually assessed in screenings are: HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and total cholesterol. Blood cholesterol is a waxy substance that is found in cells and circulates in the bloodstream. You also take in dietary cholesterol, found in animal-based foods such as meat and dairy foods.

More About Lipids:

  • High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) blood cholesterol, or good cholesterol, carries excess cholesterol away from the body so it can be excreted.
  • Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) blood cholesterol is the cholesterol that is carried through the bloodstream by low-density lipoproteins. It has been dubbed bad cholesterol because it has a tendency to form deposits that stick to the walls of arteries and other blood vessels, contributing to hypertension and heart disease.
  • Triglycerides are the form fat takes as it is carried through the bloodstream to the body's tissues. Most body fat is stored in the form of triglycerides. The combination of high triglyceride levels with high LDL and low HDL has been linked to increased risk for heart disease.

Guidelines on blood lipids:

Total Cholesterol Levels Category
Less than 200 mg/dL Desirable
200-239 mg/dL Borderline High
240 mg/dL and above High Risk
LDL Levels LDL-Cholesterol Category
Less than 100 mg/dL Optimal
100-129 mg/dL Near Optimal/Above Optimal
130-159 mg/dL Borderline High
160-189 mg/dL High
190 mg/dL and above Very High
HDL Levels HDL-Cholesterol Category
Less than 40 mg/dL High Risk
60 mg/dL and above Desirable
Triglyceride Levels Triglyceride Category
Less than 150 mg/dL Normal
150-199 mg/dL Borderline High
200-400 mg/dL High
500 mg/dL and above Very High

For more information about the cholesterol guidelines, visit the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute or the American Heart Association.

Actions to Take:

  • Discuss your blood lipid numbers with your health care provider. Should you make changes in your lifestyle to improve your numbers?
  • Factors that can raise your health risks include a diet high in saturated fat (from animal sources) and trans fat (mostly from processed foods), smoking, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Many people with high triglycerides have underlying diseases or genetic disorders. The main therapy is to change your lifestyle. This includes controlling your weight, eating foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol, exercising regularly, not smoking and, in some cases, drinking less alcohol. People with high triglycerides may also need to limit their intake of carbohydrates, which raise triglycerides and lower HDL cholesterol.

Strategies to Lower Total Cholesterol and LDL Levels While Increasing HDL:

  • Eat less saturated fat and other foods that are high in cholesterol. Since the liver uses saturated fat to produce cholesterol, the more saturated fat one consumes, the more cholesterol the liver will produce. Since saturated fats are found in animal products such as fatty meats and dairy products, as well as hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fat), it is wise to replace these with healthier foods.
  • Eat more complex carbohydrate foods, such as whole-grain breads, pastas, cereals, brown rice, peas, beans, fruits and vegetables. They are more nutritious and are much lower in fat.
  • Lose excess weight if necessary. Under the supervision of your physician, you may wish to begin a regular exercise program. Dietary changes and increased physical activity have been proven to enhance healthy weight maintenance. Aerobic exercise at least three days a week can increase HDL levels.
  • Stop using tobacco. It contributes to the risk of developing hypertension and cancer. Quitting reduces those risks and can also elevate the favorable HDL cholesterol levels.
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