What do your cholesterol numbers mean?
When you go to the doctor for a routine physical, your primary care provider might have you get your blood drawn to check your cholesterol. Those numbers are important as they help you understand your risk of heart disease or stroke.
However, the different types of numbers might seem confusing at first glance, and it may be difficult to know the difference between “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol.
“High cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in this country,” said Dr. Nicole Brady, chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare. “Getting your cholesterol levels checked is an important part of staying healthy and should be checked starting early in life. Being aware of your cholesterol status can help you stay in control of your health.”
To help you understand when you may be at risk, here is a brief run-down on measuring cholesterol and what it might mean for your health — particularly your heart health.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body needs to make hormones and digest fats. Although your body does make all the cholesterol it needs, you can also get it from a range of foods – everything from meat and poultry to dairy products.
However, not all cholesterol is the same. There are two different types of cholesterol that can have a much different impact on your body. This is the “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol you might have heard about. Different foods you eat that have cholesterol can either be higher in HDL or LDL cholesterol. For example, foods like eggs, sardines, nuts and berries are high in HDL cholesterol, while processed meats, fast food and sugary desserts can be high in LDL cholesterol.
What is a cholesterol check?
Your provider may check your cholesterol through a blood test called a lipid panel (or profile). In order to accurately check your cholesterol, you’ll need to follow instructions from your provider and may need to fast before having your blood drawn.
Your lipid panel or cholesterol check will also look at your levels of triglycerides. This is a type of fat that your body uses for energy. High levels of triglycerides along with high levels of LDL cholesterol or low levels of HDL cholesterol could mean a higher risk for heart attack and stroke.
What is a “good” cholesterol level?
Here is what your doctor might be looking at as ideal cholesterol numbers:
- Total cholesterol: about 150 mg/DL
- LDL (“bad” cholesterol): about 100 mg/DL
- HDL (“good” cholesterol): more than or equal to 40 mg/DL in men and 50 mg/dL
- Triglycerides: less than 150 mg/dL
How do I lower my cholesterol?
If your cholesterol numbers are in an unhealthy range, your primary care provider may recommend lifestyle changes, or certain medications, to help keep your cholesterol in check. This may include:
- Making healthy food choices: Since your body makes all the cholesterol it needs, you do not need to get cholesterol from foods. Limit eating foods high in saturated fat and focus on foods naturally high in fiber.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Talk to your doctor about what a healthy weight is for you. Excess body fat may affect how your body uses cholesterol and could slow down how it’s able to remove LDL cholesterol from your blood.
- Get regular physical activity: Being active can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower your cholesterol and blood pressure.
- Avoid smoking and limit alcohol: Smoking can damage your blood vessels and increases your risk of heart disease. Too much alcohol may raise your cholesterol levels and the levels of triglycerides.
If you have specific questions about your numbers, talk to your health care provider. They’ll be able to help you understand your risks, as well as help you take steps to keep your cholesterol under control.
Learn more about high cholesterol.