For many, the question of “What is normal cholesterol?” only results in conflicting answers and frustration. Food labels advertise low cholesterol content, and the news media is filled with dire warnings about what will happen if your cholesterol isn’t normal.
With the rise of heart disease in the United States, you should have an understanding of the cholesterol. “Normal,” or “healthy” cholesterol is defined as being within a specific range of measurement on a blood test.
What is measured?
Your cholesterol measurements are broken down into four basic categories:
- Total cholesterol
- HDL cholesterol
- LDL cholesterol
How is it measured?
Your cholesterol measurements are described as mg/dL, which means milligrams per deciliter of blood, or one tenth of a liter of your blood.
- For total cholesterol, it is generally considered best to have a number below 200 mg/dL. Over 240 mg/dL would be considered high.
- HDL cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol, works the opposite way; you want the number to be higher. Below 50 for women, 40 for men, is considered unhealthy. Over 60 is best.
- For LDL (sometimes called “bad” cholesterol), below 70 is recommended for those with heart disease, otherwise 100-130 is considered normal, and over 160 is high.
- Triglycerides, which are a special kind of fat found in the blood, are considered normal below 150, and high over 200.
What does this mean for me?
The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends that men and women begin having cholesterol screens by age 35 and 45, respectively. People with risk factors should begin much earlier, at age 20.
If your test results show a healthy, normal range for your cholesterol, great! However, you should ask your doctor for the numbers or a copy of the report to keep in your files, so you can keep track of them over time. For example, if your first cholesterol test shows your LDL is 93 mg/dL, and you see a rise in that number to near the top of the normal range over a year’s time, you should talk with your doctor about it. The rise in numbers could indicate a problem that should be addressed before your numbers go higher than what is considered normal range for most people.
If your cholesterol levels are too high, there are a number of things your doctor may recommend. Most often your doctor will try to lower your cholesterol naturally before prescribing medication. Typically, a change in diet and habits is first on the list. These habits include not smoking, exercising regularly, and keeping a healthy weight.
Make sure you know what to eat for health cholesterol levels.
- Cut down on or don’t eat foods that contain trans-fats, and reduce your saturated fat intake. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that for a 2,000 calorie diet, your daily intake of saturated fat should be 13 grams.
- Choosing lean meats and fish with healthy omega-3 fatty acids is recommended as well.
- However, sugar may be an even bigger culprit. A new study published by the JAMA Internal Medicine1, states that higher intake of added sugar is linked with cardiovascular disease risk factors. So avoid extra added sugars in foods and beverages, and watch out for extra sugar in foods that are labelled “low cholesterol.”
What about medications?
The most commonly prescribed medications for lowering cholesterol are statins. These block the liver’s ability to create cholesterol. There are some risks associated with statins, including liver damage, so the benefits and risks should be discussed with your doctor.
Other medications used for treating unhealthy cholesterol levels include niacin, a B vitamin used to help raise HDL cholesterol. Also included are medications called bile acid binders, or sequestrants. These lower total and LDL cholesterol in some people. The side effects may include gas, bloating, or constipation. Your doctor may also choose to combine statins with bile acid binders.
It’s all about you.
Based on your risk factors and history of heart disease, your doctor may decide that your cholesterol requires treatment even if your numbers seem to be within the normal range. So, the question of “What is normal cholesterol?” is really just a good place to start a conversation with your doctor about what is best for your personal health.
For more helpful tips, take a look at our “Lifestyle” section.