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What’s the difference between ‘good’ cholesterol and ‘bad’ cholesterol?

Wednesday 27 September 2017

A man stands with hands up, shrugging.
How much do you really know about cholesterol?

Given the seriousness with which it’s talked about, you could be forgiven for thinking that all cholesterol is terrible and out to kill you.

The truth is, a healthy level of cholesterol is actually essential for your body to run properly – every cell in your body contains some cholesterol. Your body uses cholesterol to build cell walls, make vitamin D and produce hormones. In fact, about 75% of the cholesterol in your body is made by your liver. The rest comes from some of the foods and drinks you consume.

Cholesterol can become a serious health problem when your body has too much of it, especially one type in particular called low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol. Read on to find out what cholesterol is, the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol and how you can try to keep your cholesterol at a healthy level.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance a bit like fat. It travels around your body through your bloodstream, in packages called lipoproteins. These packages are made of fat on the outside (where the ‘lipo’ part of the name comes from) and protein on the inside (which accounts for the ‘protein’).

Sometimes, these lipoproteins can leave cholesterol in your arteries, which contributes to the build-up of plaque in your arteries and increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.

What are good and bad cholesterol?

Rather than two different kinds of cholesterol that are ‘good’ and ‘bad’, there are two different types of lipoproteins that cholesterol travels in. Having some of both types of lipoproteins is essential for good health.

High-density lipoproteins, called HDL cholesterol, are often thought of as ‘good’ because they remove cholesterol from your arteries and take it back to your liver to process and eliminate.

Low-density lipoproteins, called LDL cholesterol, are thought of as the ‘bad’ cholesterol, because they leave cholesterol in your arteries. While you need some LDL and HDL cholesterol for your body to work properly, too much cholesterol in total can lead to health problems, as the extra LDL cholesterol builds up in your arteries.

A collection of high fibre foods, including oats, legumes and brown rice.

How to lower your cholesterol

Your doctor can measure your cholesterol levels using a blood test. A high cholesterol level means you might be at risk of heart disease and stroke. You won’t necessarily have any symptoms of having high cholesterol, so you doctor might test it regularly to keep an eye on your levels.

A cholesterol test looks at the amount of both HDL and LDL cholesterol in your body. It will also show your triglyceride level, which is a type of fat in your bloodstream, as high triglyceride levels can also indicate a higher risk of heart disease.

If you’ve had a test showing you have high cholesterol levels, lifestyle changes might help you to lower your levels. Reduce your cholesterol by:

If your cholesterol is high, your doctor might also prescribe you medication that can help lower cholesterol.

High cholesterol foods

Some foods, like eggs, contain a higher amount of dietary cholesterol than others. In the past, it was sometimes recommended to cut down on foods with high dietary cholesterol to help lower total cholesterol levels.

It’s now been found that these foods don’t have a great effect on your cholesterol levels. Foods that are high in saturated fat, on the other hand, can raise your cholesterol levels, so it’s wise to focus on these instead. Foods like butter, coconut oil, palm oil and fatty cuts of meat contain a lot of saturated fat, which can raise your cholesterol levels.

The Heart Foundation website has more information about high cholesterol foods, foods with high levels of saturated fat and the effects on your cholesterol levels. Read more about how diet can impact on cholesterol levels on the Health Direct website, and talk to your GP about whether you should change your diet or lifestyle to lower your cholesterol.

A collection of eggs sit on a table, one cracked open showing the yolk inside.

Where to find more information

You can read more about cholesterol at the links below. Check in with your GP next time you visit about your cholesterol levels and any changes you should think about making if they’re high.

Last updated: 27 September 2017