Bowl of eggs as an example of food with cholesterol

What are good cholesterol numbers?

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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Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in nearly every cell in the body. [2] While you may have heard people say that high cholesterol is “bad,” the truth is a little more complicated.

You need enough cholesterol to keep some bodily functions running smoothly, but not so much that it will build up in the blood vessels. [2]

What’s more, there are three types of cholesterol in the body: high density lipoprotein (HDL), low density lipoprotein (LDL), and triglycerides. Some are beneficial, while others can be problematic. Keeping all three within their recommended ranges is essential, as they all serve different purposes.

With that in mind, what are good cholesterol numbers? Let’s take a closer look at cholesterol testing.

What is the difference between LDL vs. HDL cholesterol? Of the three cholesterol types, HDL is usually considered “good cholesterol,” while LDL and triglycerides are considered “bad cholesterol.” Ultimately, you want to keep LDL and triglyceride levels low and HDL levels high.

But how high—and how low?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all adults aim for cholesterol levels within the following limits: [1]

  • LDL cholesterol – Should stay below 100 mg/dL.
  • HDL cholesterol – Should be greater than or equal to 60 mg/dL.
  • Triglycerides – Should be below 150 mg/dL.
  • Total cholesterol – The combined total of LDL, HDL, and triglyceride numbers should equal no more than 200 mg/dL.

How is cholesterol measured?

Do you know how to test cholesterol at home and how to understand the test results? Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). In other words, cholesterol tests tell you the amount of cholesterol (by weight) in every deciliter (10 mL) of blood.

Wondering how to test lipids as well? In terms of how we assess the amount of cholesterol in the blood, the process involves a test called a “lipid profile” or “lipid panel.” Using a small amount of blood, labs can run tests to determine the overall cholesterol levels in the body.

How often should I check my cholesterol?

Unless a healthcare provider tells you otherwise, you ideally want to check cholesterol every four to six years. [1]

If you have diabetes, heart disease, or a family history of elevated cholesterol, you may need to check your cholesterol more frequently. Ask your healthcare provider for a recommended frequency.

Why is it important to have healthy cholesterol numbers?

Cholesterol plays a role in maintaining cell membrane integrity, synthesizing vitamin D, and other essential bodily functions. [2] These functions help us live healthy lives, so maintaining an optimal cholesterol balance is crucial.

However, as mentioned, it’s not enough to simply have low cholesterol. You need to have the right amounts of the right kinds of cholesterol.

For example, you’ll want to keep LDL numbers below 100 mg/dL. Keeping LDL cholesterol levels in check can reduce the risk of: [3]

  • Heart disease
  • Chest pains (angina)
  • Stroke

On the other hand, you’ll want to keep HDL levels high. Elevated HDL cholesterol levels are also associated with a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, as HDL helps to remove excess cholesterol from the body.[3]

It’s also worth noting that cholesterol is just one of many indicators of health. High or low cholesterol numbers aren’t enough to paint a full picture of well-being. To gain an understanding of overall health, you may benefit from other types of tests.

Factors that affect cholesterol levels

So, a high HDL number is desirable, while high LDL and triglyceride numbers are best avoided. But how do these numbers go up or down at all?

There are several factors at play. Understanding what might affect cholesterol levels can help you to take steps toward a healthier lifestyle day to day.

Diet

Believe it or not, the body naturally produces all the cholesterol it needs. [4] However, cholesterol also enters the body through diet—notably, via foods that come from animals.

Foods high in dietary cholesterol include: [5]

  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Seafood

A diet rich in these foods (and therefore high in saturated fat) can contribute to unbalanced cholesterol levels.

Lifestyle

A low-activity lifestyle can also lead to higher “bad” cholesterol levels—especially because a lack of physical exercise can contribute to weight gain and/or obesity.

When you have excess body fat, the body uses cholesterol differently and slows down the removal of LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream. [5] This buildup of cholesterol can also start a negative feedback loop. The harder it is for the blood to reach the heart, the harder it will be to exercise.

Age

Some factors that affect cholesterol levels, such as age, are out of your control. For example, unhealthy cholesterol levels are much more prevalent in adults over 40. [6]

One reason for this change is overall liver health. The liver filters the “bad” LDL cholesterol from the body. [6] As you age, the liver loses some of its ability to process LDL cholesterol. This can result in higher overall levels of cholesterol.

Because of how aging can affect cholesterol levels, some healthcare professionals define different “good” cholesterol levels for different age groups. For example, the Cleveland Clinic recommends that: [8]

  • People aged 19 years and younger should keep their total cholesterol under 170 mg/dL.
  • People aged 20 years and older should keep their total cholesterol below 200 mg/dL.

Genetics

Genes can also play a role in your cholesterol levels. Inherited conditions like familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) can impact the body’s ability to regulate LDL cholesterol. [7] Although everyone is born with some cholesterol in their body, those born with FH have much higher initial levels that only rise with time.

The American Heart Association estimates that 1 in every 200 American adults are affected by FH, but only 10% of people are aware of their condition. [7]

If you struggle to maintain healthy cholesterol levels and your healthcare provider suspects that you may have FH, they may recommend a combination of different tests and treatments to diagnose the condition and to help you manage it.

5 ways to improve cholesterol levels

If your most recent cholesterol test showed that your numbers don’t match the recommended levels, don’t stress. There are a handful of ways to take control of your cholesterol numbers—many of which you can start on immediately. Here are five ways to bring blood cholesterol levels back on track.

Exercise

Regular physical activity is one of the most important parts of a healthy lifestyle. When it comes to cholesterol, exercise can help you lose weight and speed up your body’s LDL-removal process. Exercise can also increase good cholesterol levels (HDL). [6]

Exercising doesn’t have to mean spending hours at the gym each week, either. If you struggle to make time for physical activity, try incorporating it into your everyday routine. For example, you could:

  • Take the stairs instead of the escalator
  • Walk to the local market for groceries
  • Park your car further away from your destination
  • Stretch or lift light weights while watching TV

These moderate activities can help you progress toward more intensive workouts. Over time, you may find you have more energy to commit to longer, more strenuous exercises like water aerobics, yoga, and/or elliptical training.

Eat a balanced diet

Much excess cholesterol comes from the foods you eat. If you want to keep LDL and triglyceride levels low, you can reduce or eliminate animal products from your diet. [5]

Instead of meat, eggs, and dairy products, reach for food options lower in saturated fat like:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Tofu

If you can’t live without your meat and cheese plate, try sticking to lean meats and low-fat dairy options.

Cut back on tobacco and alcohol

Because the liver plays a vital role in regulating cholesterol levels, liver health should be top of mind for anyone looking to improve their cholesterol.

Drinking alcohol can affect the liver and raise cholesterol and triglyceride levels, so it’s wise to limit alcohol consumption if your cholesterol numbers are on the high side. [5]

Similarly, quitting smoking can do wonders for your cholesterol levels. Smoking can cause the arteries to harden, harm the blood vessels, and increase the risk of heart disease. [5] Quitting this habit can help you to avoid these issues and make progress toward markedly better health in the long term.

Manage stress

According to a 2017 study, psychological stress may influence HDL, LDL, and triglyceride levels. [9] Researchers found that stress was a risk factor for lower levels of “good” HDL and higher levels of “bad” LDL and triglycerides. By eliminating stress from your life as much as possible, you may be able to manage cholesterol levels.

Stress relief is a personal journey and may require changing factors like your work-life balance and eliminating other causes of stress. However, these activities may help you lower overall stress levels in the meantime:

  • Meditation and mindfulness
  • Deep breathing
  • Physical activity
  • Maintaining a regular sleep schedule

Ask about cholesterol-lowering medications

Proper nutrition and exercise can help bring cholesterol levels under control, but sometimes you need a helping hand. As we’ve discussed, factors including age, health, and genetics may make it more difficult to maintain healthy cholesterol levels through lifestyle alone.

Fortunately, there are several cholesterol-lowering medicines that may help. Your healthcare provider may suggest one or more to aid you in your quest for good cholesterol numbers.

Medicines that can help lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides include: [6]

  • Bile acid sequestrants
  • Fibrates
  • Niacin
  • Nicotinic acid
  • Injectable medicine (PCSK9 inhibitors)
  • Statins

If you’re struggling to keep cholesterol numbers in the recommended range, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider about starting on medication. Depending on lifestyle, health history, and other medications, they may be able to suggest an appropriate option.

Find out your cholesterol numbers with Everlywell

Ultimately, reaching and maintaining those “good” cholesterol numbers require a lifelong commitment to health and well-being. But knowing which levels to strive for is the first step.

Now that you understand what to look for, you can find out your current cholesterol levels with the Everlywell Cholesterol & Lipids Test.

Our at-home lipid panel tests total cholesterol levels, as well as LDL, HDL, and triglyceride numbers. Take the test, send it in, and you’ll have your results in a few days—no need to head to a clinic.

What causes high triglycerides but normal cholesterol?

How long to fast for a cholesterol test

How to test lipids


References

  1. Getting Your Cholesterol Checked. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  2. New Insights into Cholesterol Functions: A Friend or an Enemy? Nutrients. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  3. LDL and HDL Cholesterol: "Bad" and "Good" Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cholesterol. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  4. Cholesterol. MedlinePlus. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  5. Preventing High Cholesterol. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  6. High cholesterol. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  7. Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH). American Heart Association. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  8. Cholesterol Numbers: What Do They Mean. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  9. What are the effects of psychological stress and physical work on blood lipid profiles? Medicine (Baltimore). URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
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