Knowing the difference between good or bad cholesterol numbers can be a bit confusing because they are usually broken into categories. These categories are related but some are more important than others. The usual categories you might find on a cholesterol test are:
- Total Cholesterol Levels
- LDL Levels (Low Density Lipoproteins)
- HDL Levels (High Density Lipoproteins)
- Triglycerides Levels
So what do these various factors mean? You often hear of “good” and “bad” cholesterol. However these labels are misleading because all types of cholesterol is needed by the body to function properly. LDL moves cholesterol from the liver to the blood to be used in things like cell membrane construction. HDL moves the cholesterol back to the liver to be processed so it can be safely eliminated.
Low Density Lipoproteins
LDL is considered bad cholesterol because too much of it causes fatty build-ups of plaque in your arteries. It also wedges into the walls of your heart. The plaque build-up damages the walls of blood vessels, a precursor to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). This causes heart attacks and strokes.
High Density Lipoproteins
HDL is considered good cholesterol because it acts as a scavenger of LDL. It transports the excess cholesterol to the liver where it can be flushed from the body. It cleans the inner walls (endothelium) of your blood vessels, scrubbing them of LDL to keep them healthy.
Triglycerides are not cholesterol. They are fats in your blood stream which your body creates from excess calories, and converts to energy between meals. Any triglycerides not used to create energy are stored as fat. If you take in more calories than you burn, this fat accumulates and raises your blood triglyceride level, which can lead to heart disease. Fortunately, triglycerides usually respond quickly to changes in diet and lifestyle.
Total cholesterol levels are just that; a combination of all of the various cholesterol types in your body. Doctors look for your total cholesterol number to be in a certain range; however, total numbers aren’t as important as individual measurements.
The Cholesterol Test
So what are cholesterol numbers you need to be aware of? In the standard lipid profile test, the various types of cholesterol are measured as milligrams per deciliter of blood. This rating is shown as mg/dL. Below is a chart listing the low and high numbers of each category1:
Good 200 mg/dL or lower
Borderline 200-239 mg/dL
High 240 mg/dL and above
Optimal 100 mg/dL or lower
Good 101-129 mg/dL
Subpar 139-159 mg/dL
High 160-189 mg/dL
Very High 190 mg/dL and above
HDL levels affect men and women differently due to the male hormone testosterone.
Good 60 mg/dL or more
Bad (Men) 40 mg/dL or less
Bad (Women) 50 mg/dL or less
Good 149 mg/dL or less
Subpar 150-199 mg/dL
High 200-499 mg/dL
Very High 500 mg/dL and above
These charts can help you understand what the numbers on your lipoprotein profile mean. It’s important to keep track of these numbers over time to uncover any trends in your cholesterol levels—even if they’re within normal or “good” ranges.
Periodic testing helps your doctor determine when to prescribe medication versus recommending dietary and lifestyle changes. Testing also helps your doctor catch an early trend or diagnose potential problems before they become serious health risks. Knowing your numbers is important for you as well; you’ll know where to aim when changing your diet and exercise habits to reach healthy cholesterol levels.