Illustration of VLDL and LDL cholesterol buildup in bloodstream

VLDL vs. LDL: Understanding the differences

Medically reviewed on June 27, 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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A discussion about heart health can often contain an alphabet soup of letters. In particular, you may notice LDL, HDL, and VLDL. Although you may know that these acronyms have something to do with cholesterol, you may be unsure about which refers to “good” cholesterol and which refers to “bad” cholesterol.

Fortunately, if you’re wondering how to keep your heart healthy, we’re here to clear up the confusion for you. Put simply, HDL is good cholesterol while both LDL and VLDL are bad for your health when they’re too abundant.

However, VLDL and LDL aren’t the same. This guide will walk you through the key differences between VLDL vs LDL and offer advice on maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol 101

Cholesterol is a substance produced by your liver [1]. It contains proteins and fats and has a wax-like texture. You may associate cholesterol with poor health, but that’s not the full story. Your body actually needs some cholesterol to help you digest foods and produce hormones.

Part of cholesterol’s poor reputation comes from the fact that many people take in too much dietary cholesterol when they consume animal products so they have remnant cholesterol in their system. Since your body makes enough cholesterol to perform its essential functions, consuming excess cholesterol can lead to a build up of plaque in your arteries. This, in turn, can lead to a host of health problems, such as:

  • Strokes
  • Blood pressure problems
  • Heart disease
  • Aortic aneurysms

This is why high cholesterol is considered a serious health problem when not properly managed and why it is important to eat heart healthy foods and stay away from foods that increase LDL or VLDL levels.

What is VLDL?

There are several different types of lipoproteins that make up your cholesterol level. One such type is very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL).

More than half of each VLDL is made of triglycerides, a type of fat [2]. Excess triglycerides in your blood can cause serious health problems.

What is LDL?

Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are another lipoprotein found in your blood. In contrast to VLDL, LDL particles contain more proteins and cholesterol than they do triglycerides. However, elevated levels of either LDL or VLDL can be harmful to your body.

What do VLDL and LDL do in your body?

Both LDL and VLDL are necessary in limited amounts in your body. These types of cholesterol help your body perform several essential functions, such as [3]:

  • Cell building – Cholesterol plays a key role in building cell membranes. Cell membranes are important because they help protect your cells from damage.
  • Hormone production – The cholesterol your body produces naturally and some of the cholesterol you consume are responsible for stimulating hormone production. Some of the key hormones impacted by cholesterol include estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol.
  • Metabolism balance – Your metabolism also relies on cholesterol to function. Your body needs some cholesterol to produce vitamin D and other necessary components of metabolic function for energy usage and delivery.
  • Nutrient absorption – The main job VLDL performs in your body is carrying fats through the bloodstream so that the body can use them for energy. Similarly, LDL carries cholesterol through your body so that the body can use it for the above processes.

Are VLDL and LDL harmful?

While your body needs some VLDL and LDL to function, it’s capable of producing the necessary amount on its own. This means the food you consume can add cholesterol to what your body has already produced. Unfortunately, an elevated LDL and VLDL cholesterol level can be harmful to your health and can lead to conditions like coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease, which is why they are often referred to as bad cholesterol.

What health problems are associated with high VLDL and LDL?

An elevated VLDL and LDL cholesterol level can be associated with many serious health problems. Unless you’re tested for high cholesterol, you might not even know that you’re at risk [4]. High cholesterol can impact many of your organs and bodily systems, including:

  • Heart – The most well-known impact of high cholesterol is heart disease. When too much cholesterol builds up in the blood, your arteries begin to narrow and harden. Over time, the blood flow to the heart is restricted, which can lead to a heart attack.
  • Abdomen and gallbladder – The center of your body is also impacted by poor cholesterol management. When your body cannot clear all of the excess cholesterol it has, that excess can turn into gallstones. These stones can cause severe stomach pain.
  • Brain – Your brain is also negatively impacted by too much cholesterol. An excess of cholesterol can cause blockages in the arteries of your brain, leading to an increased risk of stroke, memory problems, and dementia.

How are your VLDL and LDL levels measured?

You can’t measure your VLDL vs LDL levels because there isn’t a test for VLDL. However, you can test your LDL levels. If you have high LDL cholesterol, you also probably have elevated VLDL. The closest a healthcare provider can get to telling you your VLDL levels is to perform a triglycerides test and calculate a rough estimate.

A triglyceride test is a part of a full cholesterol test, called a lipid panel. A complete lipid profile can generally tell you the following information [5]:

  • Total blood cholesterol
  • The amount of LDL in your blood
  • Total amount of HDL
  • Triglycerides

To prepare for this test, you typically must abstain from food and beverages (other than water) for 9–12 hours before the test. The test itself is just a simple blood draw. Once a healthcare provider has taken your blood sample, they’ll send the sample to a lab for analysis.

What are the ideal levels of VLDL and LDL?

Once you get those test results, you’ll need to know where your numbers fall. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute lists the following criteria for cholesterol [4]:

  • Total cholesterol – Your total cholesterol, which includes both your LDL and HDL, should be less than 200 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter). If it’s between 200–239 mg/dL, it’s borderline high. Anything over 240 mg/dL is considered high.
  • LDL cholesterol – The amount of LDL that makes up your total cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dL. Between 100 –129 mg/dL is still considered safe, but once the number pushes above 130 mg/dL, you’re approaching borderline high territory. Healthcare providers consider an LDL level of between 160–189 mg/dL high, and anything above 190 mg/dL very high.
  • VLDL cholesterol – Since you can’t test your VLDL levels, you’ll have to look at your triglyceride numbers. Less than 150 mg/dL is optimal. Triglycerides between 150–199 mg/dL are borderline high, while anything over 200 mg/dL is high.

How can you keep VLDL and LDL under control?

Fortunately, if you have high cholesterol, you can change it. You should speak with your healthcare provider if any of your levels are borderline high or high. It’s important to know how much cholesterol is best for you and your body. Your healthcare provider can help you strategize ways to lower your cholesterol.

Your plan will likely include the following actions:

Eat well

Excess cholesterol comes from the foods you consume, so if your levels are skyrocketing, your diet is probably part of the problem. Individuals with high cholesterol should avoid foods that are high in saturated fats, such as [6]:

  • Red meat
  • Fatty, processed meats (such as sausages, bacon, and salami)
  • Deep-fried foods
  • Fast food
  • Fatty snack foods (such as potato chips, cookies, and cakes)
  • Full-fat dairy products

Instead of eating these foods, you should strive to add more plant-based foods to your diet. Upping your intake of the following can help keep your cholesterol levels at a healthy level:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Whole grains

Because plant-based foods don’t contain cholesterol, adding them to your diet won’t cause your levels to spike.

Exercise regularly

Exercise is another key component to keeping your cholesterol levels where they should be. And the good news is, you don’t have to become a marathon runner—just try to meet the CDC’s recommended levels of exercise for adults. This includes [6]:

  • About 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise
  • Strengthening exercises that target the major muscle groups
  • Yoga or stretching for flexibility

Outside of regular exercise, you may also benefit from making a conscious effort to move more throughout the day. Moving more throughout the day may include:

  • Taking the stairs
  • Parking further from your destination
  • Scheduling regular stretch and walk breaks throughout the day

Incorporating these extra movement sessions into your daily routine can help improve your overall health and lower your risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Make other lifestyle adjustments

Along with diet and exercise changes, there are other things you can do to help keep your cholesterol levels under control. Some of these include:

  • Avoid smoking and using other tobacco products
  • Learn your family history, since high cholesterol may have genetic roots
  • Get your cholesterol levels tested regularly
  • Manage stress levels, as high stress can impact cholesterol

In some cases, your healthcare professional may also prescribe medications to help you manage your cholesterol.

Keep a handle on your heart health with Everlywell

Part of managing your heart health is keeping your cholesterol levels in check. Elevated amounts of both VLDL and LDL can lead to serious health problems. When you don’t practice healthy eating and exercise habits, these lipoproteins can build up and clog your arteries.

Curious to learn what your current cholesterol levels are?

Everlywell specializes in home health tests that provide you with insights into your body. Our Heart Health Test, in particular, can give you a comprehensive look at your cholesterol levels and other markers of good heart health.

When you’re armed with the information you need about your health, you can make better lifestyle choices for improvement. Start your journey toward better health today, with Everlywell.

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References

1. About Cholesterol. CDC. URL. Accessed June 27, 2022.

2. Cholesterol, Triglycerides, and Associated Lipoproteins. PubMed. URL. Accessed June 27, 2022.

3. New Insights into Cholesterol Functions: A Friend of Enemy? PubMed. URL. Accessed June 27, 2022.

4. High Blood Cholesterol: What You Need to Know. NIH. URL. Accessed June 27, 2022.

5. Lipid Panel. University of Michigan Health. URL. Accessed June 27, 2022.

6. Saturated Fat. American Heart Association. URL. Accessed June 27, 2022.

7. How Much Physical Activity Do Adults Need? CDC. URL. Accessed June 27, 2022.

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