What is "good cholesterol”?

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on April 5, 2021. 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.

Cholesterol is one of many markers for your overall health. While too much cholesterol was initially considered a bad thing, modern medicine has discovered that cholesterol is much more complicated. In fact, some cholesterol is actually considered good for you. Learn more about good cholesterol, how you can boost it, and whether you should consider taking a cholesterol test below.


Good and bad cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced primarily in the liver. While it may have gotten a bad reputation, cholesterol is actually necessary for a whole host of bodily functions, including building hormones and cells and synthesizing vitamins. The liver produces all of the cholesterol that you need, but you also get cholesterol from animal-based foods, like poultry, meats, and dairy products.

Cholesterol makes its way through the body on lipoproteins. There are two types of lipoproteins: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

LDL cholesterol is considered the “bad” cholesterol as it can contribute to fatty buildups in the arteries and increases the risk factor for heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease.

HDL cholesterol is considered the “good” cholesterol. It absorbs LDL cholesterol and takes it back to the liver where it is broken down and flushed out of the body. It’s not a complete one-to-one transfer though. HDL cholesterol absorbs only about one-third or one-fourth of LDL cholesterol.

“Good” and “bad” are relative signifiers here. Remember, your body still needs cholesterol for basic functions. LDL cholesterol comprises most of the cholesterol in your body. The main problem comes from having too much LDL cholesterol or too little HDL cholesterol combined with their relationship with triglycerides.

Cholesterol and triglycerides

Triglycerides are the most common type of fat found in the body. Any calories that you don’t immediately use get turned into triglycerides, which are stored in the fat cells of your body. When your body needs extra energy between meals, it taps into the stored triglycerides for fuel. However, regularly consuming more calories than you burn can contribute to high triglycerides.

Triglycerides have a natural relationship with cholesterol. Combining high triglyceride levels with low HDL cholesterol and high LDL cholesterol can lead to the formation of hard, thick fat deposits in the arterial walls. Arteries then become narrower and less flexible with high cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems.

Boosting your good cholesterol

The best way to boost your good cholesterol is with regular physical activity. Even just 60 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week was found to have a profound effect on HDL blood cholesterol levels. Find an activity that is enjoyable and easy to stick with on a regular schedule.

If you are a smoker, add “better cholesterol” to one of the many reasons to quit. Along with its extensive list of detrimental health effects, smoking is known to reduce HDL cholesterol levels while increasing triglycerides and LDL cholesterol levels. Smoking also causes permanent damage to the heart and blood vessels. All of that directly contributes to cardiovascular disease.

When it comes to diet, the main thing you want to avoid in terms of cholesterol is trans fats. Trans fats are known to reduce HDL cholesterol while increasing LDL cholesterol. These fats include shortening, margarine, and most fried foods. You should also limit your consumption of saturated fat, which is found in full-fat dairy products and most meats. However, omega-3 fatty acids — commonly found in fish, plant oils, and nuts, and seeds — are a great way to increase your HDL cholesterol levels.

If you’re interested in learning more about what to eat on a low cholesterol diet or the worst foods for high cholesterol, check out some of our recent blogs.

It’s always a good idea to consult your healthcare provider about your health, including your cholesterol levels. If you want to take a proactive approach, consider testing your cholesterol with the Everlywell at-home Cholesterol and Lipids Test. This at-home cholesterol test (you collect your sample at home and ship it to a lab for analysis) provides accurate results for total cholesterol, triglycerides, and both HDL and LDL cholesterol levels.

Everlywell makes lab testing easy and convenient with at-home collection and digital results in days. Learn More