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Facts about good and bad cholesterol to help you understand what your cholesterol levels mean – Sylvan Wellness


Facts About Cholesterol


What You Need To Know


It may surprise you to know that cholesterol itself isn’t bad. In fact, cholesterol is just one of the many substances created and used by our bodies to keep us healthy. Some of the cholesterol we need is produced naturally (and can be affected by your family health history), while some of it comes from the food we eat.


According to the American Heart Association (AHA), there are two types of cholesterol: “good” and “bad.”  It’s important to understand the difference, and to know the levels of “good” and “bad” cholesterol in your blood. Too much of one type — or not enough of another — can put you at risk for coronary heart disease, heart attack or stroke.


Cholesterol comes from two sources: your body and food. Your liver and other cells in your body make about 75 percent of blood cholesterol. The other 25 percent comes from the foods you eat. Cholesterol is only found in animal products.


A cholesterol screening measures your level of HDL and LDL.  HDL is the “good” cholesterol which helps keep the LDL (bad) cholesterol from getting lodged into your artery walls.  A healthy level of HDL may also protect against heart attack and stroke, while low levels of HDL (less than 40 mg/dL for men and less than 50 mg/dL for women) have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease.  


If you need to increase your HDL to your reach your goals, studies show that regular physical activity, such as at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity (e.g. brisk walking) every week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity (e.g., jogging, running) or a combination of both every week can help your body produce more HDLs.  Reducing trans fats and eating a balanced, nutritious diet is another way to increase HDL.  If you smoke – stop: cigarette smoking can decrease your HDL. If these measures are not enough to increase your HDL to goal, your healthcare practitioner may prescribe a medication specifically to increase your HDLs.


LDL cholesterol is the “bad” cholesterol. When too much of it circulates in the blood, it can clog arteries, increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke.


LDL cholesterol is produced naturally by the body, but many people inherit genes from their mother, father or even grandparents that cause them to make too much. Eating saturated fat, trans fats and dietary cholesterol also increases how much you have. If high blood cholesterol runs in your family, lifestyle modifications may not be enough to help lower your LDL blood cholesterol. 


What your cholesterol levels mean


Keeping your cholesterol levels healthy is a great way to keep your heart healthy – and lower your chances of getting heart disease or having a stroke. Cholesterol can be tricky to understand, though, because not all is bad for you. Some is actually good for you. The most important thing you can do as a first step is to know your cholesterol numbers by getting your cholesterol tested. Here are some easy ways for you to understand what the testing involves, how it can help you and ways to improve your health by improving your cholesterol.

The American Heart Association endorses the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) guidelines for detection of high cholesterol: All adults age 20 or older should have a fasting lipoprotein profile — which measures total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides — once every five years.   This test is done after a nine- to 12-hour fast without food, liquids or pills. It gives information about total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides (View an animation of cholesterol).

Your test report will show your cholesterol levels in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). To determine how your cholesterol levels affect your risk of heart disease, your doctor will also take into account other risk factors such as age, family history, smoking and high blood pressure.

Cholesterol levels


Figuring out the best cholesterol levels to aim for can be confusing. But here’s some help setting your cholesterol number target.


According to the staff at the Mayo Clinic, it’s important to keep your cholesterol levels within healthy limits. If you have other risk factors for developing heart disease, you need to be even more careful — especially with your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol level.


Interpreting your cholesterol numbers


Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood in the United States and some other countries. Canada and most European countries measure cholesterol in millimoles (mmol) per liter (L) of blood. Consider these general guidelines when you get your cholesterol test (lipid panel or lipid profile) results to see if your cholesterol falls in an ideal range. 


Total cholesterol
(U.S. and some other countries)

Total cholesterol*
(Canada and most of Europe)


Below 200 mg/dL

Below 5.2 mmol/L


200-239 mg/dL

5.2-6.2 mmol/L

Borderline high

240 mg/dL and above

Above 6.2 mmol/L


LDL cholesterol
(U.S. and some other countries)

LDL cholesterol*
(Canada and most of Europe)


Below 70 mg/dL

Below 1.8 mmol/L

Ideal for people at very high risk of heart disease

Below 100 mg/dL

Below 2.6 mmol/L

Ideal for people at risk of heart disease

100-129 mg/dL

2.6-3.3 mmol/L

Near ideal

130-159 mg/dL

3.4-4.1 mmol/L

Borderline high

160-189 mg/dL

4.1-4.9 mmol/L


190 mg/dL and above

Above 4.9 mmol/L

Very high

HDL cholesterol
(U.S. and some other countries)

HDL cholesterol*
(Canada and most of Europe)


Below 40 mg/dL (men)
Below 50 mg/dL (women)

Below 1 mmol/L (men)
Below 1.3 mmol/L (women)


40-49 mg/dL (men)
50-59 mg/dL (women)

1-1.3 mmol/L (men)
1.3-1.5 mmol/L (women)


60 mg/dL and above

1.6 mmol/L and above


(U.S. and some other countries)

(Canada and most of Europe)


Below 150 mg/dL

Below 1.7 mmol/L


150-199 mg/dL

1.7-2.2 mmol/L

Borderline high

200-499 mg/dL

2.3-5.6 mmol/L


500 mg/dL and above

Above 5.6 mmol/L and above

Very high


*Canadian and European guidelines differ slightly from U.S. guidelines. These conversions are based on U.S. guidelines.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that a triglyceride level of 100 mg/dL (1.3 mmol/L) or lower is considered optimal. The AHA says this optimal level would improve your heart health. 

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