Your body needs cholesterol. It can’t make hormones without it. It also needs cholesterol to produce vitamin D and digestive aids.

But it doesn’t need your help. It produces whatever cholesterol it needs. Unfortunately, sometimes it gets too much of the waxy, fat-like substance from foods in your diet. Excessive cholesterol that accumulates in your arteries increases your risk of heart disease. 

Two types of lipoproteins deliver cholesterol to your body, low density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL earned its nickname (“the bad cholesterol") because it can clog your arteries. HDL cholesterol helps prevent heart disease, so higher amounts in your blood is better. That’s why HDL is known as “the good cholesterol.” 

What are your cholesterol levels? See what they mean using these guidelines:

Total Cholesterol Level

Less than 200 mg/dL: Desirable.

200-239 mg/dL: Borderline High.

240 mg/dL and higher: High. 

LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) Cholesterol Level

Less than 100 mg/dL: Optimal.

100-129 mg/dL: Near Optimal/above optimal.

130-159 mg/dL: Borderline high.

160-189 mg/dL: High.

190 mg/dL and above: Very high.

HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) Cholesterol Level

Less than 40 mg/dL: Major risk factor for heart disease.

40-59 mg/dL: Better.

60 mg/dL or higher: This level is considered a protector against heart disease.

Where Does Cholesterol Come From?

The liver produces 80 percent of your body’s cholesterol. The remainder is diet-related. Cholesterol is found in meat, poultry, cheese and many other foods we eat.

The body is also vulnerable to foods that contain artificial trans fats, which increases the cholesterol produced by the body. Be careful with trans fats: Though cholesterol is often associated with foods that contain animal products, trans fats (or trans fatty acids) are created when hydrogen is added to help solidify liquid vegetable oils during processing. Avoid foods with “partially hydrogenated oils” in the list of ingredients and “trans fats” in the nutrition facts label.

How cholesterol affects your chances of a heart attack or stroke:

Risk Factors

  • Family history of early heart disease. (Guidelines: Did your father or brother have heart disease before age 55? Did your mother or sister have heart disease before age 65?)
  • High blood pressure (140/90 mmHg or higher) or blood pressure controlled by medication.
  • Low HDL (less than 40 mg/dL) cholesterol.
  • Cigarette smoking.
  • Age: males 45 years or older, females 55 or older. 


Statins that reduce the amount of cholesterol produced by the liver are among the drugs that lower cholesterol levels. But controlling your cholesterol can require some introspection. Your lifestyle might need an overhaul.

Diet: Avoid trans fats, reduce saturated fats (from animal sources like fatty meats, cheese and dairy desserts) and limit foods high in cholesterol (fatty meats). Choose foods high in fiber, such as oat bran, lentils and beans. Treat your heart well with a diet rich in fruit and vegetables while limiting salt and refined sugar.

Lose weight: Carrying extra weight – check your body mass index – increases your risk of heart disease and, in many cases, your cholesterol levels. Lowering your weight can also lower LDL and total cholesterol levels. It can also increase HDL (good) and reduce triglyceride levels. 

Stay active: A sedentary lifestyle is a heat disease risk factor. If you commit to a fitness regimen, you can lose weight and lower LDL levels and raise HDL levels.  The Surgeon General recommends 2 hours, 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. A brisk walk for 30 minutes each weekday would do it.

Stop smoking and limit alcohol: Smoking is linked to multiple health issues, including heart disease, hardening of the arteries and blood-vessel damage. Alcohol can increase your cholesterol. Men should have no more than two drinks a day, women one drink.

Treating a rare form of high cholesterol: