Heart Health

What Is the Difference Between Good and Bad Cholesterol?

Originally published July 11, 2017

Last updated September 1, 2022

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Cholesterol — a waxy substance that builds in the arteries — is not completely harmful, despite its reputation for being bad for you. In fact, some of it can even improve your health when consumed in the right amounts.

The physicians at the USC Cardiac and Vascular Institute at Keck Medicine of USC can measure your good cholesterol and bad cholesterol levels, and help you adopt healthier eating and living habits so you can achieve the best balance of both.

What are the different types of cholesterol?

cholesterol-sm-imgThere are two types: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). As a general rule, HDL is considered “good” cholesterol, while LDL is considered “bad.” This is because HDL carries cholesterol to your liver, where it can be removed from your bloodstream before it builds up in your arteries. LDL, on the other hand, takes cholesterol directly to your arteries. This can result in atherosclerosis, a plaque buildup that can even cause heart attack and stroke.

Triglycerides make up the third component of cholesterol and act as unused calories that are stored as fat in the blood. Eating more calories than you burn can cause triglycerides to build up in the bloodstream, increasing your risk for heart attacks.

Understanding your numbers

More than one-third of Americans suffer from high LDL cholesterol, so it’s important to see your physician to learn your cholesterol counts — or the amount of cholesterol in your blood — and closely monitor them. Your physician will perform a simple blood test and check your other risk factors to find your counts.

An LDL count of 100 or less is considered healthy. Your HDL count should be at least 40 (or 50 if you’re female) or greater. Healthy triglyceride counts are 150 or less. Your “numbers,” or total HDL and LDL cholesterol plus triglycerides, should add up to no more than 200. If your numbers are higher than 200, check with your physician — you may have a higher HDL count, which is not unhealthy.

Keep your cholesterol counts under control

Maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol is manageable. Medication is key, along with eating a healthy diet with lots of vegetables and getting regular exercise.