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Good and Bad Cholesterol – Do You Know The Difference? Health Tips

What Is Cholesterol?

High cholesterol is a serious health problem affecting millions of people in the West. It's a major risk factor for heart disease among half of all men and a third of women. Even so, cholesterol is a substance that is vital to the well-being of your body. It is a fatty substance, produced in the liver, and known as a lipid. Cholesterol coats every cell in the body and insulates our nerve fibres. It helps control blood sugar and blood pressure. It also assists in the creation of certain hormones, helps with cell repair and development, and is vital for memory and learning, so generally cholesterol is a good thing. If you were able to hold cholesterol in your hand, you would see that it is a waxy substance that resembles candle scrapings.

The Difference between HDL and LDL Cholesterol (Good and Bad Cholesterol)

Proteins in your blood (which is watery) carry cholesterol (which is oily). When the two combine they are known as lipoproteins and they can be good or bad, meaning that you have both good cholesterol and bad cholesterol floating around inside you. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is the bad cholesterol. This carries cholesterol from the liver and deposits it on your artery walls, causing them to thicken.

Conversely, high density lipoproteins (HDL) are good cholesterol. HDL carries cholesterol from cells in the body to the liver. Your hard-working liver then tries to break the fatty deposits down and flush them out of the body. High levels of HDL are associated with low risk for heart disease. Exercise can increase your HDL levels, while obesity and smoking will lower them.

Why Would You Have High LDL Cholesterol?

In most of us, 60 to 70 % of our cholesterol is carried by LDL particles to the parts of the body that need it. If we have too much LDL in the blood, then it is deposited within the arteries which can then become blocked. Blocked arteries can rapidly lead to heart attacks. According to some research, people have a propensity for LDL cholesterol if they tend to eat a diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol. The causes of unhealthy cholesterol can be listed as

  • Poor diet containing too much saturated fat
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Family history

Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol levels more than any other types of food. A typical diet of processed foods and take away are a big cause of raised cholesterol. After you eat, your intestines will break down fat molecules and build them into new molecules that the body can use. It's a complicated process, but eventually all this food we eat is converted into particles of LDL. Nearly all cells in the body can use LDL, but where there are more LDL particles in circulation than the body requires, the liver has to clear up the excess. If the liver can't cope those particles, they will end up in the wrong place, lining arteries and blood vessels.

Which Foods Are Associated with High Cholesterol?

You can decrease the bad cholesterol in your blood by following a healthy reduced-fat diet and replacing 'bad' fats with 'good' fats.

Foods high in saturated 'bad' fat and polyunsaturated 'trans' fats include:

  • Processed food such as pies, pasties, pastries, sausages, cakes and biscuits etc.
  • Meat
  • Butter , lard and ghee
  • Cream and cheese
  • Foods containing coconut or palm oil

The Dangers of High Cholesterol

If you have high cholesterol you are running the risk of a narrowing or hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and this in turn can cause heart disease, stroke and a number of other health issues.

What Is Considered to Be a High Cholesterol Level?

Your blood cholesterol level is determined by a number of factors. How much cholesterol your body makes and how much you take in from food, are two of them, coupled with how much your body uses up or excretes. High cholesterol can be the result of a problem from any of those variables.

Your cholesterol level can be determined through a fasting blood test. In the UK, the average total cholesterol level is 5.7mmol/l. The ideal level would be less than 5mmol/l. High cholesterol is generally taken as anything over 5mmol/l. However, your GP will be keen to measure the ratio between good and bad cholesterol and will check for other risk factors for heart disease.

Is High Cholesterol Hereditary?

Certainly there are a variety of genetic disorders that affect how the body makes lipids. In approximately 1 in 500 people, a very high level of cholesterol can run in the family, due to a genetic problem with the way cholesterol is made by the body's cells. One example is called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). These people have a lack of low-density lipoprotein receptors that remove cholesterol from the blood and will have high cholesterol levels from birth. The treatment for FH is just the same for those who develop high cholesterol in later life.

How to Reduce Your Cholesterol Levels


As always, a healthy and balanced diet is imperative. You should avoid fatty foods wherever possible. Substitute these foods with healthier ones such as fruit and vegetables and wholegrain. Eat plenty of oats, legumes, apples and prunes as these are all good sources of fibre. Nuts such as walnuts and almonds are also great for you. Green Tea has been shown to lower LDL in your blood. There are products on the market, such as Flora Pro-active that can ostensibly help reduce your cholesterol.

You can reduce cholesterol levels by eating 'good' unsaturated fat which can be found in:

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Vegetable oils
  • Oily fish (including mackerel and salmon)

Your choice of food preparation can also reduce the total amount of fat in your diet. You can opt to microwave, steam, poach, boil or grill food instead of roasting or frying it and replace butter with a spread.

Regular Exercise

There is nothing better for you than exercise. Being sedentary is the biggest mistake you can make for your health. Do something every day that raises your heart rate and makes you out of breath, even if it's just running up and down the stairs a few times. Ideally you should get outside into the fresh air and jog, run or walk.

Stop Smoking

There is a chemical in cigarettes named acrolein that stops HDL from travelling to the liver.


Reduce your stress. This means taking a long hard look at your life and reconsidering what you can do to ensure that you have a work/life balance that is most effective for you. Consider where your stress triggers lie and seek to eliminate them.

Further information on how to lower your cholesterol levels can be found here

Image Source: jeffreyw (Mmm... breakfast sammichUploaded by Fæ) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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