Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance that the body needs to build cell walls. The liver makes it for that very purpose, but the body picks up extra cholesterol when it consumes foods made from animals or oils made from palm, coconut and palm kernel. Extra cholesterol can cause problems over time, because it contributes to fatty buildup in the arteries. This increases risk for cardiovascular disease, which means the narrowing of the arteries that cause chest pain, heart attack or stroke. (1)
The lipoprotein wars
Here’s how it all goes down: the liver breaks down foods with animal fats, creates cholesterol and sends it out to make cell walls via cholesterol carriers made of fat and proteins known as lipoproteins. The body’s demand for cell walls is a lot less than the cholesterol available, so the lipoproteins have to do something else with it. (1) In one of those perverse twists of nature that leave us scratching our heads, there are two kinds of lipoproteins in our bodies which disagree on what to do with the cholesterol.
The low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, are the “bad” carriers that roam around your bloodstream like your slob of a roommate, leaving bits of cholesterol between the linings of your artery walls. High-density lipoproteins, or HDL, are “good” carriers that function much like your tidiest parent (2), running around after the LDL carriers, picking up discarded cholesterol and taking it back to the liver where it should have been put in the first place. (“Who left this cholesterol here? LDL again? How many times do I have to tell you …”)
The blood test
All of that extra cholesterol stuffed in your artery walls is what causes the narrowing of the arteries and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is a top killer in the United States, responsible for nearly one in three deaths annually, according to the American Heart Association. (3) While some risk factors are not modifiable — you are stuck with your family history, age and ethnicity, for example — high cholesterol is a controllable risk factor. The first step to controlling it is getting a lipid panel.
A lipid panel is a blood test that measures amounts of fat and fatty substances in the blood. It starts with a simple blood draw from the finger or arm, often after having fasted nine to twelve hours. It measures:
- Total cholesterol level
- Hdl (“good”) cholesterol level
- Ldl (“bad”) cholesterol level
- Triglycerides (other fats in the blood) (4)
Lipid panel by the numbers
The unit of measure mg/dL stands for milligrams per deciliter.
|borderline||201 – 239 mg/dL|
HDL cholesterol (more is better)
|males||≥ 40 mg/dL|
|females||≥ 50 mg/dL|
LDL cholesterol (less is better)
|above desirable||100 – 129 mg/dL|
|borderline high||130 – 129 mg/dL|
|high||160 – 189 mg/dL|
|very high||≥ 190 mg/dL|
Triglycerides of ≥ 150 mg/dL has been shown to somewhat increase risk of cardiovascular disease. (5)
If it’s been a year or two since your last lipid panel, call your doctor and get those numbers. Frequent reminders of your risk of heart disease due to cholesterol can help encourage you to eat more healthily.
- Cholesterol 101: A basic introduction to cholesterol. American Heart Association website. Accessed Sept. 14, 2017.
- The good and the bad: HDL, LDL and triglycerides. American Heart Association website. Accessed Sept. 14, 2017.
- Heart disease and stroke statistics — at-a-glance. American Heart Association/American Stroke Association document. Accessed online Sept. 14, 2017.
- Lipid panel — topic overview. WebMD website. Accessed Sept. 14, 2017.
- Cholesterol testing and the lipid panel. WebMD website. Accessed Sept. 14, 2017.
Watch AHA infographics on the ins and outs of cholesterol: