Slices of avocados, food with HDL cholesterol

HDL vs. LDL vs. triglycerides: what are the differences?

Medically reviewed on July 13, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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If you’ve ever taken a cholesterol test, your results likely came back with readings for your LDL, HDL, and triglyceride levels. But unless you asked your healthcare provider a dozen questions or know how to understand cholesterol test results, you may have left your appointment knowing only that your blood cholesterol levels were good or bad.

Because knowledge is such a crucial part of your wellness journey, we want to shed some light on these cholesterol-related terms. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll be comparing HDL vs LDL vs triglycerides, including what they all do, where they come from, and how to keep them under control.

Breaking down the types of cholesterol

When it comes to your blood cholesterol levels, there are three primary indicators that healthcare providers look for: HDL, LDL, and triglycerides. A fourth reading—your total cholesterol number—combines your HDL and LDL particle numbers with a portion of your triglycerides.

But what do these measurements indicate? Let’s take a look.

What is HDL cholesterol?

High density lipoprotein (HDL) is a protein and fat combo that carries cholesterol—a wax-like substance—throughout your body. HDL is known as “good cholesterol,” as it helps promote overall heart and brain health by removing “bad cholesterol.”

What is LDL cholesterol?

Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is another protein and fat combination that transports cholesterol to and from cells. Because LDL can contribute to clotting and blockages in your blood vessels or arteries, it’s often referred to as “bad cholesterol.”

What are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are differentiated from LDL and HDL cholesterol. Technically, triglycerides aren’t a type of cholesterol at all. Instead, they’re lipids—a fat found within your blood. In fact, triglycerides are the most common type of fat found in your body.

Even though they aren’t cholesterol, triglycerides are an essential part of the cholesterol puzzle, and cholesterol tests (called “lipid panels” or “lipid profiles”) measure the triglyceride level, too.

How HDL, LDL, and triglycerides differ

So, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides are all part of the “cholesterol ecosystem” inside of you. These three aspects of cholesterol all work together, but they’re far from the same. Here are a few ways triglycerides, LDL, and HDL differ.


Your liver naturally creates enough LDL, HDL, and triglycerides on its own to support body functions. [1] However, cholesterol and triglycerides also enter your body through food and beverages.


HDL cholesterol exists in all the animal products you consume. Whenever you eat any of the following foods, you introduce more cholesterol into your body: [1]

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Seafood
  • Eggs
  • Cheese
  • Dairy products

All of these foods are relatively high in fat, which is why one of the first recommendations for lowering cholesterol levels is to cut fatty foods and animal products from your diet.


Like HDL, LDL cholesterol comes from animal products. Saturated and trans fats are especially problematic, as they can increase the amount of LDL cholesterol in your body. [2]

To limit your LDL intake, try to avoid fried foods, margarine, and baked goods made with shortening.


Most fats—whether they’re inside your body or in the foods you eat—exist in the form of triglycerides. [3] While LDL and HDL come mostly from animal products, triglycerides can be found in just about every food, especially:

  • Oils
  • Butter
  • Other fats

Why? Triglycerides form as a byproduct of the extra calories you consume. [4] Your body turns these extra calories—along with excess sugars and alcohol—into triglycerides for easy storage. These triglycerides are then stored in your fat cells for future use.

When you need energy, your body releases triglycerides into your bloodstream.


All forms of cholesterol serve a few essential purposes, including making hormones, aiding digestion [1], and maintaining the fluidity and integrity of your cell membranes. With that said, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides also have their own jobs to do.


HDL takes the LDL cholesterol from your body tissues back to your liver. Once your liver receives the LDL, it filters the cholesterol from your body. Ultimately, the more HDL you have, the better.

Even so, HDL isn’t a perfect police officer. According to the American Heart Association, HDL carries only one-third to one-fourth of your blood cholesterol. [6] For this reason, it’s not enough to have high HDL level; you also need low LDL level.


LDL does the opposite of HDL. These lipoproteins transport cholesterol from your liver to other parts of your body. Along the way, this cholesterol may attach itself to the walls of your arteries in the form of plaque. If too much plaque accumulates in your arteries, blockages can form, leading to cardiovascular disease and problems such as chest pain and heart attack. [7]

When you think about it, LDL doesn’t serve much of a purpose. Or rather, it has a purpose, but it’s not particularly beneficial for your health. As such, lower LDL numbers are ideal.


Triglycerides are a source of energy for your body. These lipids travel throughout your body on a third type of fat-protein combo called very low density lipoprotein (VLDL).

Although triglycerides store energy, there is such a thing as too many. Higher triglyceride levels are linked with complications like: [14]

  • Pancreatitis
  • Strokes
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart attacks
  • Carotid artery disease (blocked or narrowed arteries)

Improvement Methods

Because HDL, LDL, and triglycerides fulfill different functions and come from various sources, it should be no surprise that managing them also requires different tactics.

However, because these three types of cholesterol are intertwined, targeting just one can be challenging. Still, there are distinct strategies for managing all parts of the cholesterol puzzle.


Contrary to popular belief, lowering your cholesterol isn’t your only goal. Because HDL is considered the “good cholesterol,” you’ll ultimately want to increase your levels to maintain your health.

If a healthcare provider or at-home cholesterol test tells you that your HDL numbers are low, you may be able to raise them on your own—though you should always confirm with a medical professional first. That said, here are a few ways to potentially increase your HDL level:

  • Change your diet – One of the easiest ways to increase your HDL cholesterol is to swap saturated and trans fats for unsaturated fats. Animal products and baked goods typically contain the former“bad” fats. To consume more “good” fats, reach for avocados, nuts, and vegetable oils. The omega-3s in fish oil supplements may also help raise HDL. [8]
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle – A consistent exercise schedule may help with HDL cholesterol levels, both directly (by improving the cholesterol efflux capacity of HDL) and indirectly (through weight loss). [9, 10] Eliminating cigarette and alcohol consumption can also help.

Wondering what good cholesterol numbers are? For reference, adults should generally aim for an HDL choleterol level of 60 mg/dL or more. [11]


While you want high levels of HDL, your LDL levels should be low. There are several ways to reduce your LDL level, including [12, 13]:

  • Losing weight – Being overweight or obese is associated with high LDL levels, low HDL levels, and an increase in total cholesterol levels.
  • Taking cholesterol-lowering medicine – In some cases, medicine is the best option. Your healthcare provider may prescribe you one of the many cholesterol-lowering medications, such as statins, niacin, or PCSK9 inhibitors.
  • Assessing your current medications – Some blood pressure medicines, HIV/AIDS medications, and steroids can cause your LDL levels to rise. If you’re taking any of these medications and suffer from high LDL levels, you may need to develop a different plan with your healthcare provider.

For reference, adults should generally have an LDL cholesterol level of less than 100 mg/dL. [11]

It’s also worth noting that some people are born with higher LDL levels and an inability to handle LDL properly. This genetic condition, known as familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), affects around 1 in every 200 Americans. [14] If you have FH, your healthcare provider will likely recommend a cholesterol-lowering medication tailored to your condition.


As with LDL and HDL, there are several ways to address your high triglyceride levels, such as:

  • Modifying your diet – Reducing your intake of carbohydrates, trans fats, and saturated fats, all while increasing your fiber consumption, can help you manage your triglyceride levels. [3]
  • Limit or eliminate alcohol – As you may remember, triglycerides come from excess sugars, calories, and alcohol. Beer, wine, and spirits contain all of these elements. By cutting back on drinking—or removing it from your routine altogether—you can better control your triglycerides. [15]
  • Taking medication – Prescription options like fibrates or nicotinic acid can lower triglyceride levels. Fish oil supplements have also been shown to help.

For reference, adults should have triglyceride levels under 200 mg/dL. [11]

How to measure your HDL, LDL, and triglycerides

To summarize, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides are each individual parts of a complex internal process surrounding cholesterol. Some are beneficial (HDL), while others can have harmful effects (triglycerides and LDL).

Despite their differences, one fact remains: Keeping all three types of cholesterol within the recommended limits is essential to a healthful lifestyle. To maintain your wellness and develop a plan for boosting or lowering your numbers, it’s critical that you know your current blood cholesterol level.

So, wondering how to test lipids and how to test cholesterol levels at home? With an Everlywell Cholesterol & Lipids Test, you can measure your HDL, LDL, triglyceride, and total cholesterol levels in a single test—all without leaving your home. We send you a simple test, then you perform it yourself and send it to one of our partnered CLIA-certified labs.

After your blood sample is reviewed by an independent board-certified physician, you’ll receive your digital results through our secure online platform.

This test and other tests (including HbA1c and the Heart Health Test) are also available to you when you join the Everlywell+ at-home heart health membership.

LDL vs. HDL cholesterol: what you need to know

Does fish oil lower cholesterol?

What are good cholesterol numbers?


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  2. HDL cholesterol: How to boost your 'good' cholesterol. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  3. Triglycerides. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  4. Triglycerides. MedlinePlus. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  5. New Insights into Cholesterol Functions: A Friend or an Enemy? Nutrients. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  6. Cholesterol: The good and the bad. American Heart Association. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  7. LDL and HDL Cholesterol: "Bad" and "Good" Cholesterol. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  8. An Improvement of Cardiovascular Risk Factors by Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids. Journal of Clinical Medicine Research. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  9. Effects of exercise on HDL functionality. Current Opinion of Lipidology. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  10. HDL: The "Good" Cholesterol. MedlinePlus. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  11. Getting Your Cholesterol Checked. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  12. LDL: The "Bad" Cholesterol. MedlinePlus. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  13. Cholesterol-lowering Medicine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  14. Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH). American Heart Association. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  15. Triglycerides: Why do they matter? Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
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