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What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a sterol and a waxy fat-like substance which is made by the body and is found naturally only in animal products such as meat, eggs, poultry and dairy foods.

What is good cholesterol?

Many people refer to HDL cholesterol as ‘good’ cholesterol. This cholesterol is the type that’s carried by high-density lipoproteins (HDL), which brings cholesterol back to the liver to be discarded. This helps prevent cholesterol from building up on your arteries, lowering your risk for blood clots and other related health issues.

The same factors that raise our levels of LDL cholesterol, like a poor diet, lack of exercise, and high BMI also contribute to lower levels of good HDL cholesterol. Most of us should aim to have at least 60mg of HDL cholesterol per deciliter of blood. Anything lower than 40 or 50mg per deciliter is considered unhealthy.

What causes high cholesterol?

High cholesterol, which means elevated levels of LDL cholesterol, is caused by a variety of factors. The ones that we have the most control over are diet, exercise, and smoking. If your diet is high in saturated and trans fats, that can cause elevated levels of LDL cholesterol. Smoking can negatively impact our body’s production of good cholesterol while simultaneously degrading our arteries, making them more vulnerable to damage from high cholesterol.

Our genes can also contribute to elevated levels of cholesterol. Some individuals simply produce more LDL cholesterol than others, or are less efficient at removing this bad cholesterol from the body.  

How can I lower my cholesterol?

Lowering cholesterol really means lowering your levels of LDL cholesterol while raising your levels of HDL cholesterol. The easiest way to do this is by making positive lifestyle changes. Improving your diet, getting regular exercise, losing weight, and stopping smoking will all help lower your cholesterol levels.

It’s also important to pay attention to hereditary and genetic risk factors. Having high blood pressure and high levels of blood sugar can lower your levels of good cholesterol, putting you at increased risk. Obesity and other health factors like diabetes can also contribute to high levels of cholesterol. Proactively managing these health conditions is important to ensure that you’re able to keep your cholesterol levels low.

What foods lower cholesterol?

A healthy diet is an important factor in keeping your cholesterol low. You should limit your intake of saturated and trans fats, which are the worst foods for high cholesterol. Saturated and trans fats are primarily found in commercially processed foods that are high in fat, like baked goods made with shortening, deep-fried snacks, and even microwave popcorn.

Instead, focus on eating foods that help lower cholesterol, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and heart-healthy fats like those found in avocados, olive oil, and eggs. People used to think eggs were high in cholesterol, but new studies have shown that their fat doesn’t affect cholesterol as much as previously thought.

Related Terms

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Photo of Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson

Medically reviewed by:

Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD

Kristin is an RDN who also earned her Ph.D. in Nutrition from Arizona State University with an emphasis on insulin resistance, lipid metabolism disorders, and obesity. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic where she focused on nutrition-related proteomic and metabolic research. Her interests include understanding the exact mechanism of action of various genetic variations underlying individual predispositions to nutrition-related health outcomes. Her goal is to help all individuals prevent chronic diseases and achieve long, healthy lives through eating well.

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