Bad blood: Five facts you should know about cholesterol

Dan Rafter

By now, most adults know they have to control cholesterol levels to stay in good health.

But there’s more to know about cholesterol. There are good types and bad types, for instance. Too much of this bad cholesterol will increase your risk of heart disease, heart attack or stroke, according to the American Heart Association.

Here are some fast facts about cholesterol, where it comes from, the difference between “bad” and “good,” and ways to reduce the levels of the “bad” kind in your blood.

1. What is cholesterol, anyway?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in the blood and in the body’s cells. The body uses cholesterol to produce cell membranes and certain hormones. The problem comes when there’s too much of it in the blood. The medical term for this condition is hypercholesterolemia.

2. What is bad and good cholesterol?

Not all cholesterol is bad. High-density lipoprotein, commonly known as HDL, is the “good” version. Low-density lipoprotein, LDL, is the “bad.”

LDL cholesterol causes a problem when it builds up in the inner walls of the arteries that send blood and oxygen to the heart and brain. When it comes in contact with other substances, it can form a thick, hard deposit of plaque that narrows the arteries. If a clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery, it can cause a heart attack or stroke, according to the American Heart Association.

3. How much control do people have over their cholesterol levels?

People can generally exert only so much control over the amount of cholesterol in their blood, because the liver and cells in the human body make up about 75 percent of a person’s cholesterol levels. It’s the other 25 percent that comes from the foods people eat. Some people have inherited genes that cause their bodies to overproduce cholesterol.

4. What foods cause high cholesterol?

Doctors recommend a diet high in fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes to keep levels low. The American Heart Association recommends that people keep their intake of total fat to between 25 percent and 35 percent of their daily calories. They also recommend that saturated fat consumption be kept to less than 7 percent of total daily calories, and the intake of trans fat to less than 1 percent.

5. Does exercise help?

It might. For some people, regular exercise increases the level of HDL cholesterol. Doctors have connected a higher HDL level with a lower risk of heart disease.

Of course, diet and exercise might not be enough for some people to control their cholesterol. For some, medication might be needed. These people should check with their doctors before drafting any plan to lower cholesterol levels.


What’s the ideal cholesterol level?

It can be difficult to know exactly what your cholesterol numbers should be. You should know that cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood.

According to the Mayo Clinic, here is the breakdown of cholesterol levels:

- Below 200 milligrams per deciliter: desirable

- 200-239 milligrams per deciliter: borderline high

- 240 milligrams per deciliter or higher: high