Cholesterol is a word that often evokes fear, even if you’re not entirely sure why. It has gained a reputation as being the villain.
It may surprise you, then, to hear that not all cholesterol is bad. In fact, it plays an important role in the body and is something we all need (in the right proportions, of course).
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in every cell of the body. It has many roles, including helping to build and maintain cell membranes, producing hormones, aiding in the digestion of fats, and synthesizing vitamin D.
Cholesterol is primarily produced by the liver, but we also get it by eating animal-based foods. It is transported in the bloodstream within particles called lipoproteins. Those lipoproteins have two main functions, which is where the terms “bad cholesterol” and “good cholesterol” arise.
The “bad” cholesterol: LDL
If someone tells you to lower your cholesterol, they’re talking about low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells throughout the body. It is often referred to as “bad” because if you have too much LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream, this leads to plaque buildup in the arteries. This is why we’re advised to be mindful of our cholesterol levels.
The good cholesterol: HDL
Cholesterol isn’t all bad, though. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) helps remove excess cholesterol—up to 1/3 of the LDL cholesterol—from the bloodstream and arteries, then transports it back to the liver to be processed and eliminated.
Striking the right balance
Like many things in life, the key to normal, healthy cholesterol is getting the balance right. To maintain normal, healthy cholesterol levels, you should aim to keep your LDL (aka, the “bad” cholesterol) below 100 mg/dL and your HDL (aka, the “good” cholesterol) above 60 mg/dL.
Total cholesterol should be below 200 mg/dL. This number is calculated by adding your HDL, LDL, and 20% of your triglycerides. Learn more about calculating your TG:HDL ratio here.
3 ways to support normal, healthy cholesterol levels
Fortunately, there are some good options available that can help you keep your cholesterol levels where they should be, starting with some key lifestyle changes.
Eat a heart-healthy diet. For most of us, this means more healthy fats and fiber and less unhealthy fats and salt. Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish, and limit ultra-processed and fried foods. Fiber in particular is very important for maintaining normal, healthy cholesterol levels. A fiber supplement like Balance can help you up your fiber intake if you’re not getting enough. (For reference, only about 5–10% of Americans reach the recommended daily intake levels of fiber, which means most of us have some work to do to close the gap.)
Exercise regularly. The general recommendation is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, but anything is better than nothing. If you’re currently not very active, start small and work your way up to longer, more intense workouts.
Limit alcohol and don’t smoke. If you smoke, quitting is just about the best thing you can do for your heart health and you won’t have to wait long to start seeing benefits. Limiting your alcohol intake can make a big difference too, as excessive drinking can raise triglyceride levels.
While lifestyle changes are an excellent place to start to get your cholesterol levels back on track, more changes may be necessary. Your doctor can help you come up with a plan that fits your needs and lifestyle.