What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a substance that is waxy and fat-like. It circulates through your blood, so all of your cells have cholesterol.

Although your body needs cholesterol to make hormones, cells, and vitamins, too much cholesterol can become a health problem and may cause cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels) disease.

This article discusses the different types of cholesterol, levels, risk factors, and steps to lower cholesterol levels.

Woman shopping for heart-healthy food

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Dietary Cholesterol

Cholesterol in your body comes from two main sources: your liver and your diet. The liver can make all the cholesterol your body needs to function.

Dietary cholesterol enters your body from the foods you eat. Only foods made from animal sources—like meat or dairy—have cholesterol. It is easier to understand this by looking at examples of the types of foods that are high or low in cholesterol.

High Cholesterol Foods 

High cholesterol foods include: 

  • Meat 
  • Fish
  • Seafood 
  • Eggs 
  • Saturated vegetable oils 
  • Butter
  • Lard
  • Cheese 
  • Yogurt 
  • Other dairy products 

Low Cholesterol Foods

Low cholesterol foods include: 

  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Oats
  • Whole grains
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables 

Blood Cholesterol

When there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it can stick together with other substances like fat or calcium to make thick deposits (plaque) on the walls of your arteries. This is called atherosclerosis and may cause heart disease, such as coronary artery disease if the arteries become narrow and clogged.

When the arteries become blocked, it is difficult for blood to flow through them, so the heart does not get enough blood or oxygen.

There are three main types of proteins called lipoproteins that transport cholesterol in your blood:

  • HDL
  • LDL
  • VLDL

HDL

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is considered good cholesterol. HDL moves cholesterol from different parts of the body back to the liver, so it can remove it from your body. The liver can break down the extra cholesterol.

A healthy amount of HDL in the blood can protect you from heart disease and stroke. However, HDL cannot remove all the excess cholesterol in your body.

LDL

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is considered bad cholesterol. LDL also moves cholesterol in your body. If there is too much LDL in your blood, then you have a higher risk of plaque forming in the arteries.

VLDL

Very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) is also considered bad cholesterol. It can lead to plaque forming in your arteries. However, VLDL is different from LDL because VLDL moves fat called triglycerides. Triglycerides come from converting the food you eat into fat.

Monitoring Cholesterol Levels

Since high cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, it is important to monitor your cholesterol levels. By having a blood test to check your cholesterol, you will be able to take control and make changes to improve your health.

You may not have any symptoms of high cholesterol, so you should follow the guidelines for monitoring cholesterol. 

Have your cholesterol checked:

  • At least once if you are between the ages of 9 to 11 and a second time between the ages of 17 to 20
  • Every five years if you are 20 years old or more and have a low risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Every one to two years if you are a man between the ages of 45 to 65 
  • Every one to two years if you are a woman between the ages of 55 to 65
  • Every year if you are over the age of 65 

If you have a high risk of cardiovascular disease, you may need to have your cholesterol checked more often. Children at high risk may also need to start having their cholesterol checked at the age of 2. Talk to your healthcare provider to find the right monitoring schedule for you. 

Screening Tests 

To check your cholesterol, your healthcare provider will order a blood test called a lipid panel or lipoprotein panel. The blood test measures your:

What Are Healthy Cholesterol Levels?

Healthy cholesterol levels depend on your age and other factors. You will get results measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). 

Healthy cholesterol levels for children who are 19 years old and younger:

  • Total cholesterol: less than 170 mg/dL
  • HDL: more than 45 mg/dL
  • LDL: less than 100 mg/dL
  • Non-HDL: less than 120 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides: less than 75 mg/dL

Healthy cholesterol levels for men who are 20 years old and older:

  • Total cholesterol: 125 to 200 mg/dL
  • HDL: 40 mg/dL or higher
  • LDL: less than 100 mg/dL
  • Non-HDL: less than 130 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides: less than 150 mg/dL

Healthy cholesterol levels for women who are 20 years old and older:

  • Total cholesterol: 125 to 200 mg/dL
  • HDL: 50 mg/dL or higher
  • LDL: less than 100 mg/dL
  • Non-HDL: less than 130 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides: less than 150 mg/dL

Risk Factors for High Cholesterol

If you have multiple risk factors, then the chance of you having high cholesterol goes up.

Risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes 
  • No physical activity
  • An unhealthy diet with a lot of bad fats
  • Family history 
  • Genetics 
  • Obesity or being overweight 
  • Being male 
  • Being older 
  • Being part of certain races or ethnic groups 
  • Taking certain medications, such as birth control pills 

How Diet Impacts Blood Cholesterol

Your diet can have a big impact on blood cholesterol.

Foods that are high in cholesterol are also high in trans and saturated fats. Trans and saturated fats can make your liver produce more cholesterol. This can cause high cholesterol levels in your blood. A diet high in cholesterol and fats can increase your LDL cholesterol levels.

How to Lower Cholesterol Levels

There are steps you can take to lower your cholesterol levels. Talk to your healthcare provider to find the right treatment plan for you.

Diet

Changing your diet is an important lifestyle modification that can help lower cholesterol levels. You want to focus on a heart-healthy diet that is easy to follow. 

Diet changes can include:

  • Lowering high cholesterol foods
  • Eating more soluble fiber, fruits, whole grains, and vegetables 
  • Eating fish with omega-3 fatty acids
  • Limiting sugar, salt, and alcohol 

Exercise

Exercise can also help lower cholesterol levels and improve your heart health. Being physically active may lower LDL and triglycerides while raising HDL. 

Medications to Lower Cholesterol 

There are medications that can lower cholesterol, such as statins. However, statins have side effects that you should discuss with your healthcare providers, such as increasing the risk of diabetes. They can prescribe other medications that may not have the same side effects.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is HDL cholesterol?

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol functions to help clear fats from your bloodstream. As a result, it is known as the “good” cholesterol.

What is LDL cholesterol?

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is what many refer to as “bad fat” because high levels in the blood put you at a higher risk of developing heart disease. LDL particles transport cholesterol around the body.

Can you tell if you have high cholesterol without a blood test?

The only way to definitely determine if you have high cholesterol is through a blood test.

A Word From Verywell 

It is important to understand cholesterol and how it affects your body. You’ll want to follow the guidelines for monitoring cholesterol levels, so you should get tested regularly based on the advice of your healthcare provider. Also talk to your practitioner if you have any questions or concerns about cholesterol, testing, or treatment.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. MedlinePlus. Cholesterol levels: what you need to know. Updated October 2, 2020.