Cholesterol 101: The Good vs. The Bad (And What to Do About It)
Despite its reputation, cholesterol is not inherently bad. In fact, some cholesterol is not only good but necessary for our health. Your body needs cholesterol to build cells, help with digestion, and produce hormones. The problem comes when you have too much of the bad type of cholesterol. This can put you at risk for coronary heart disease, a heart attack, or a stroke. Here’s what you need to know to help keep your cholesterol levels in check and healthy.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a soft, waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in your bloodstream and in your cells. Since it doesn’t dissolve in the blood, proteins—called lipoproteins—carry cholesterol to where it is needed in the body. Lipoproteins are made up of cholesterol and triglycerides, which are a type of fat the body uses as an energy source, just like carbohydrates.
Cholesterol comes from two sources: your liver and certain foods you eat, like meat, poultry, and dairy. Your liver, however, makes all the cholesterol your body needs for your cells, digestion, and hormones.
What is meant by good and bad cholesterol?
There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL is also called “bad cholesterol” because it can build up on the walls of your blood vessels, increasing your risk of a heart attack or stroke. HDL, on the other hand, is considered “good cholesterol” because it can help clear these buildups by removing the bad cholesterol from your body.
Higher levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with a lower risk of atherosclerosis, heart disease, and stroke. So, in general, you want to have higher HDL levels and lower LDL levels to keep your heart healthy. A blood test can measure the amount of each type of cholesterol in your blood. In general, the Cleveland Clinic recommends that you keep your total cholesterol under 200 mg/dL, your LDL cholesterol under 100 mg/dL and your HDL cholesterol over 50 mg/DL for women and under 40 mg/dL for men.
How can I maintain healthy cholesterol levels?
Keeping your cholesterol levels in check and maintaining good heart health primarily comes down to your diet and lifestyle. Here are the American Heart Association’s (AHA) recommendations for what to load up on and what to avoid.
Heart-healthy foods to eat:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole-grain foods (bread, pasta, brown rice)
- Fat-free and low-fat dairy products
- Lean meats and poultry without skin. If you choose red meat and pork, select “loin” and “round” options to help minimize the amount of fat.
- Fish like salmon, trout, tuna, and sardines
- Unsalted nuts, seeds, and legumes (dried beans or peas)
- Non-tropical vegetable oils like olive, corn, canola, or safflower oils
Foods to avoid:
- High-sodium (salty) foods
- Sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages
- Red meats and fatty meats
- Full-fat dairy products (whole milk, cream, ice cream, butter, and cheese)
- Baked goods made with saturated and trans fats like donuts, cakes, and cookies
- Foods with “hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients
- Tropical oils like coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils
- Solid fats like shortening, stick margarine, and lard
- Fried foods
What other lifestyle choices can help improve my heart health?
Fortunately, the go-to practices for keeping your heart healthy are a lot of the same ones that are recommended for keeping the rest of your body (and brain) tuned up. Here are four lifestyle choices to consider to support your heart health.
1. Stay active.
Studies show lacing up those sneakers is key to a healthy heart. Frequent exercise has been associated with a decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease as well as low blood pressure and higher insulin sensitivity. The AHA recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week like taking a brisk walk in the neighborhood, going for a bike ride, or doing yard work.
2. Reduce stress.
Studies suggest that meditation and mindfulness can help improve everything from your stress levels and blood pressure to your sleep quality and emotional health. Having a furry friend around could also help lower your blood pressure, as well as improve your physical and emotional health by helping you stay more active and social.
3. Get good sleep.
If you’ve ever had a night of poor sleep, you already know the many ways that puts you in a slump. Sleep issues like not sleeping enough, sleep apnea, and insomnia can increase the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, and coronary heart disease. Regular exercise, limited screen time before bed, and a consistent sleep schedule can all help improve your sleep.
4. Make a few lifestyle shifts.
Quitting smoking and drinking alcohol in moderation have both been linked to higher levels of good cholesterol. For alcohol, the CDC recommends limiting your intake to 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men.
To learn more about ways to keep your heart healthy, you can also tune into the American Heart Association podcast that covers everything from managing cholesterol to practicing meditation. But before you go about making any major lifestyle changes or if you have concerns about your heart health, it’s important to first consult with your doctor to decide what’s best for you.
It’s important to be your own advocate when it comes to your health and we’re here to support you with exceptional pharmacy care every step of the way. If your doctor prescribes cholesterol-lowering medications or other heart medications, our pharmacists would be happy to walk you through dosage instructions and answer your questions. We’ll also help you get the lowest price by looking for any available savings, as well as deliver your medications to your home for free. Simply tell your doctor to send your new prescription to Alto or contact our care team, and we’ll transfer your existing prescriptions for you.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.