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Understanding Cholesterol Numbers

Posted Mar 28 2012 11:10pm

Say you get your blood drawn because your health care provider wanted to check your cholesterol levels. They send you a letter in the mail with your results, which can sometimes be confusing. Let’s break it down:

Triglycerides – These are fat particles floating about in your blood. They should be under 150 milligrams per deciliter (1.7 millimoles per liter).

Total Cholesterol – This represents aaall the different types of cholesterol in your body added up into one single number. The US government recommends a total cholesterol below 200 milligrams per deciliter (5.2 millimoles per liter). However, since heart attacks still happen to people with cholesterol levels in the 200 neighborhood, it’s safer yet to keep yours below 150 milligrams per deciliter (3.9 millimoles per liter). The Framingham Heart Study reported that around one-third of people who have cholesterol levels between 150 and 200 will experience a heart attack, while people with cholesterol levels below 150 almost never have a heart attack.

Low-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol (LDL) – This is the “bad” cholesterol. Think L is for LOSER. These losers start to accumulate in your arteries, eventually blocking them altogether. Hello heart attack. For that reason, you can also think L is for low, because you want to keep your LDL down. An LDL below 100 milligrams per deciliter (2.6 millimoles per liter) is good. An LDL below 80 milligrams per deciliter (2.1 millimoles per liter) is even better!

High-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol (HDL) – This is the “good” cholesterol. Think H is for HERO. These heroic chaps are like tiny dump trucks that pick up cholesterol in your arteries and carry it away to your liver to be discarded. You want this cholesterol to be high! Think H is for High. Men should aim for HDL above 45 milligrams per deciliter (1.2 millimoles per liter). Women should aim for HDL above 55 milligrams per deciliter (1.4 millimoles per liter).

P.S. If thanks to a super healthful diet, you lower your total cholesterol below 150 mg/dL—you obviously don’t have much cholesterol in your blood and consequently don’t need so many “dump trucks” to carry it away. So if your HDL value is below the targets written above, it’s not dangerous, provided your total cholesterol is also low.

How do I lower my LDL cholesterol?
  • Eat less meat and animal products like dairy or cheese. This means avoid low-carb diets that champion meat. Boo Atkins, boo.
  • Eat foods with plenty of soluble fiber like oats, barley, and beans. The fiber traps the cholesterol in your intestines and carries it out with wastes (ew, but thx). 
  • Soy products are also great for lowering cholesterol. 
  • Don't smoke! 
  • If you exercise, you boost your HDL cholesterol, which will then go about lowering your LDL cholesterol.

  • Reference: Barnard, Neal D. 21-day Weight Loss Kickstart: Boost Metabolism, Lower Cholesterol, and Dramatically Improve Your Health. New York: Grand Central Life & Style, 2011. 




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