Understanding Good Cholesterol

by Catherine Rein
(last updated May 4, 2009)

Heart disease is one of the number one killers in the United States and it can be very confusing trying to follow the latest scientific information on "good" cholesterol and "bad" cholesterol. I know that I struggled at first to understand the difference. Keep in mind that knowing a little about good cholesterol can help you maintain healthy blood vessels and a healthy heart, giving you a longer more productive life.

High-density lipoprotein or HDL, is known as "good" cholesterol. About one-third of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL. HDL seems to protect against heart attack, it does this by carrying cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it's excreted from the body.

Low-density lipoprotein or LDL is known as "bad" cholesterol. If your body has excess of LDL it keeps circulating in the blood. Over time this cholesterol can become oxidized and these smaller, denser particles can enter the blood vessel wall and start to build up under the vessel lining. These are called plaques and can lead to inflammation, bleeding and calcification. Avoiding excess LDL is key to heart health. The following areas will help you improve your cholesterol level:

  • Lifestyle Changes. First, choose healthier fats such as olive oil, peanut oil or canola oil for cooking. Avoid saturated fats and trans fats, these fats raise LDL cholesterol and cause damage to your arteries
  • Physical Activity. This includes maintaining a healthy weight. For every two pounds you lose, your HDL may increase by 0.35 mg/dL. Frequent aerobic exercise can boost HDL cholesterol by about 5 percent. You should plan to exercise for 30 minutes, five times a week for full benefits.
  • Nutrition. You should use plant-based oils for cooking and baking, such as olive oil or canola oil. You should also try to avoid trans fats, found in things such as fried foods, prepared cookies and crackers. The trans fats found in these foods reduces the ability of our blood vessels to work in a healthy way. It also promotes obesity and can lead to diabetes.

There are medications available to help lower LDL cholesterol and they may also increase HDL cholesterol. Medications include niacin, fibrates (Lopid) and statins (Lipitor, Zocor). These medicines provide help for cholesterol levels and they also benefit the heart and blood vessels.

You might also consider dietary supplements such as plant sterols (found in margarine spreads such as Promise activ or Benecol) and omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish, fish oil supplements).

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