Understanding Cholesterol: High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) and Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL)

It can be frustrating to find out that your lipid profile (or blood sample/cholesterol test) from the doctor revealed higher levels of cholesterol. Those increased levels put you at a higher risk for heart disease, but are rarely explained to us with that call. This article can help give some information on what cholesterol is, the different types, and some potential lifestyle changes you can make to improve your total cholesterol levels. 

spring salad with strawberries and goat cheese

What is the difference between LDL and HDL?

First, it is important to know the difference between LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. This post is meant for education only and the main focus is food and exercise and the effect on cholesterol. There are so many factors that impact a person’s risk of heart disease, including family history of high cholesterol, whether or not a person eats a balanced diet or has regular exercise routines, even some medications! It’s always a good idea to talk with your own healthcare provider. If you have recently had a blood test taken at your doctor’s office and they let you know you had high cholesterol numbers, but didn’t quite tell you what to do about it, this post can help you understand the main types of cholesterol and how that can contribute to health conditions.

I would also encourage you to talk to your healthcare provider about any additional medical conditions or health problems that could also be impacting your levels. Finally, a Registered Dietitian can help evaluate the test results from your lipid panel and what a healthy diet may do for disease control. Talking with a dietitian can help you discover some of the main ways you can work towards healthy cholesterol levels.

What is LDL?

Low-density lipoprotein- is the “bad” cholesterol of the group. I remember “LDL” for it’s “L”… He’s a loser or he’s lame. LDL cholesterol levels are one type of cholesterol that typically comes from excessive sugar in the diet, animal products and fried foods. This is why we recommend reduced fat milk and dairy products, limiting sugar intake, and limiting fried foods to one time a week or less. LDL cholesterol builds up in the artery walls and makes it hard for the heart to pump blood through the arteries impacting blood flow. These high cholesterol levels can cause high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and other forms of heart disease.

  • Foods that can increase LDL
    • saturated fats- animal products (meat and dairy)
    • Fried foods
    • high sugar intake

What is HDL?

High-density lipoprotein- is the “good” cholesterol. I think, heaven, happy, h= HDL. This guy is the hero. He comes into the blood vessels and cleans out the bad cholesterol. HDL removes LDL from the artery walls and prevents other cholesterol and plaque buildup. HDL must be high in order to remove LDL from the artery walls. High levels of HDL cholesterol is actually a good thing, but it can make for a high total cholesterol. It’s important to ask your doctor what your numbers actually are.

 There are only 2 ways to increase HDL cholesterol levels to: eating unsaturated fats, and regular exercise. 

  • What can increase HDL cholesterol?
    • Eat those unsaturated fats. The ones found in plant products (olive, olive oil, almonds, nuts, nut butters) and fish.
    • Exercise should be cardiovascular exercise with a goal of 1 hour each day. If an hour seems intimidating or unattainable, start smaller. Aim for 15 minutes a day until you form the habit then increase the time when you can.
    • When choosing a type of fat to use in the kitchen, remember, the softer the product is at room temperature, the lower in saturated fats it can be. However, if you are someone who chooses whole source foods and uses them with a healthy lifestyle, the more natural form (butter vs margarine for example) can be the healthier version. 

What are Triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a type of fat in the body. Triglycerides can be loosely defined as the fat- like substance circulating in the blood. It comes mostly from high fat foods and high sugar foods in the diet. 

When thinking about heart health, we need to keep LDL, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides in mind. Triglycerides and LDL, when elevated, increase the risk for heart disease (coronary artery disease). HDL, when elevated, is protective against heart disease because it cleans out the bad fats and LDL cholesterol.

Finally, we have trans fats. Trans fats are man made fats that have little function in the body other than clogging arteries. These are found in prepackaged baking mixes, baked goods, cool whip, boxed cake mixes, margarine, and a lot of other sources of conveniently packaged foods. Since, they are so common, I do not expect you to take them out all together but start to pay more attention to the foods that may contain trans fats and find a better version at the store. The more natural form a food is in, the healthier it is. Begin to look at all of the additives in foods you typically buy and work towards decreasing those additives. 

  • So, what are you looking for to avoid trans fats?
    • If a product has less than .5g of trans fat per serving, it does not have to be listed on the nutrition facts label. Big deal, right? <0.5g, who cares? But, when we eat <0.5g for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack for 10 years, it can really add up.
    • Check out the ingredients list. If a product contains trans fat, you will see “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients list. That means there is trans fat in that product. Cool Whip has hydrogenated oils, but Reddi Whip does not. Bisquick baking mix has hydrogenated oils, but Bisquick heart healthy baking mix does not. Sometimes, making a simple brand switch can make a difference.


Overview of  ways to improve blood cholesterol levels through food and activity.

  1. Limit red meat intake to 1-2 times a week. Eat lean cuts of red meats, poultry, and fish more often. A portion of meat should be about the size of your palm (about 3 ounces). Grass fed beef contains more unsaturated fats and would be a better choice than conventional beef. 
  2. Use light butters such as I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter, Smartbalance, and any other hydrogenated oil-free butter if you need to lower cholesterol quickly. However, if you are a generally healthy and active person with cholesterol at a healthy level, I would prefer less processed options like, whole grass fed butter. (this one has changed a lot with recent science so I really think it’s best to discuss with your own health professional who knows your body and lifestyle!)
  3. Drink only water or no sugar beverages. Limit desserts and other sweet treats. 
  4. Increase intake of nuts, seeds, fish, and other unsaturated fats. Aim for at least 1 option of unsaturated fat per day. 
  5. Increase amount of fiber in your diet by eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day and switching to whole grain products instead of white breads and pastas.
  6. Regular Physical Activity- 30-60 minutes at least 5 times a week.

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