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What Is Cholesterol?

Get the Facts & Improve Your Numbers

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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

  • I am enjoying the information from comments than the article itself. Thx guys!??
  • Excellent article. Thanks for the info.
  • Great to read an article with so much unanimous controversy. Great to live in the USA with freedom of speech, last I looked.
  • This article is horribly outdated. If Sparkpeople wants to get information to its members it needs to keep up with current information.
    This, unfortunately, reads like 'Cholesterol for Dummies, How to Stay Ill Informed and Dumb'.
    Come on Sparkpeople..we expect better from you.
  • agreed, please update
  • The article is a little outdated. Please update the facts.
  • Hi this link seemed to work better for me

    https://www.you
    tube.com/watc
    h?v=fuj6nxCDBZ0
  • Decades old thinking. Disappointed that this old news is still being circulated.

    If you research up-to-date studies (SCIENCE, mind you), you will see a lot of this article this is not really accurate. Correlation (old studdies, funded by the pharmaceutical companies, no less) is NOT causation.

    Tsk tsk. And Shame on you for this article, with so much missing, and pushing misinformation.
  • Interesting! Echoing KimTrim, total cholesterol can sometimes be over 200 and not necessarily bad; for example, in my case, my HDL cholesterol (the GOOD kind) has always been in the upper 90's and even occasionally low 100's;so when factored in with other elements my cardiac risk is very low. (Fasting trig's 50's/60's). Even back when my weight was over 200 lbs., I had similar cholesterol and triglyceride results. I never take anything for granted; however, especially since my mother passed away from congestive heart failure at age 57. Thanks for this article!
  • Hi... I have a question... not sure if anyone on here has already asked this... but... eggs. My eggs say that they have 195 mg of Cholesterol ... and, we are only allowed a certain amount of Cholesterol a day. So ... does that mean I cannot have 2 eggs because .. one has 195 mg of Cholesterol to it? :(
  • interesting and very good to remember
  • Great article..........
    .....Thank You.
  • 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.

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.