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The different types of cholesterol

Too much of some types of cholesterol can clog arteries. Knowing—and controlling—your cholesterol levels is part of good health.

Some things are good in abundance, but cholesterol isn't one of them.

Cholesterol is a fatlike substance found naturally in your blood and elsewhere in your body. Healthy amounts of cholesterol help your body with jobs such as building cells and producing hormones.

But when there's too much cholesterol in the bloodstream, it can build up in artery walls, interfere with blood flow, and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Good cholesterol, bad cholesterol and triglycerides

Cholesterol comes in several forms. Each of them acts differently.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol, can be hard on the heart because excess amounts in your blood tend to gather in the arteries.

A buildup of cholesterol may narrow the arteries, slowing or cutting off blood flow to the heart or the brain and increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

So the lower your LDL cholesterol is, the better.

Your LDL cholesterol level can rise if you eat too much saturated fat found in foods such as:

  • Meats.
  • Whole-milk dairy products.
  • Egg yolks.
  • Poultry with skin.
  • Fried foods.
Trans fat—often found in commercial baked goods and stick margarines made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils—also increases LDL cholesterol.

Limiting how much you eat of these kinds of foods is one way to help keep LDL cholesterol in check.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL), or good cholesterol, seems to help protect the heart by diverting cholesterol from arteries to the liver, where it's broken down and removed from the body, the American Heart Association (AHA) notes.

If your HDL levels are too low, your risk for heart disease goes up.

Staying physically active, choosing not to smoke and keeping a healthy weight are good ways to boost HDL cholesterol.

Triglycerides are another type of fat found in the blood. They are produced in the body, found in fatty foods and made from other food energy sources, such as carbohydrates.

In healthy amounts, triglycerides provide fuel for the body between meals. But high levels may contribute to heart disease.

According to the AHA, treatment for high triglycerides may include lifestyle changes such as eating healthier foods, controlling weight, avoiding alcohol and exercising.

Know your numbers

If you're age 20 or older, have your cholesterol checked at least every five years, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) advises.

The preferred cholesterol test is called a lipid panel. It measures your total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides after you fast for 9 to 12 hours.  

Cholesterol control

If you have high cholesterol, you may be able to lower it by eating foods low in saturated fats, as well as exercising for 30 minutes most days and losing weight if needed.

You may also need cholesterol-lowering medicines.

Your doctor can help you create a plan to control your cholesterol and help prevent or treat heart disease.

Reviewed 11/20/2022

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