Cholesterol: Everything You Ought To Know, In A Nutshell

Cholesterol is one of the many substances required by your body to keep you healthy. But, as the blood cholesterol rises, the chances for coronary heart disease increase, which make cholesterol a villain in the eyes of many. Hence, the word cholesterol is often referred in a bad connotation.


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What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is an essential organic molecule required for all animals.  It is an indispensable structural component of all animal cells. Human body gets cholesterol from two sources: your body and food.

The cholesterol required by a human body is generated in the liver and circulated to other parts through blood. Cholesterol is also present in foods from animal sources like meat, dairy products and poultry. A healthy human body of around 68 kg, produces cholesterol of 1 gm per day. A normal human body contains around 35 gm. This is located within the membranes of the cells of the body. The presence of cholesterol in body increases with intake of cholesterol rich foods. 

What are the side effects of excess cholesterol?

Excess cholesterol gets deposited between layers of artery walls making it difficult for heart to circulate blood. The deposits break open forming clots. These clots sometimes block an artery supplying blood to brain which results in a stroke. If an artery to heart is blocked, it leads to heart attack. As the cholesterol level increases,   the chances for such risks also increase. 

Presence of excess cholesterol along with other negative features like smoking, high blood pressure or diabetics increases the risk many fold.  Family health history, age, gender and diet also have bearing on cholesterol levels.  

What are the types of cholesterol? 

Cholesterol does not dissolve in the blood. It is transported through your bloodstream by carriers called lipoproteins, which are made of fat (lipid) and proteins. 

Cholesterol is mainly classified into two categories: Good and bad. Excess of one type or shortage of the other leads to heart attacks or strokes.  An awareness of levels of each type in our body is essential to lower the risk from coronary diseases and strokes. 

Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is considered as bad cholesterol as it the source of deposits that blocks arteries. As blood circulates, it slowly builds up in the inner walls of the arteries supplying blood to heart and brain. Along with other substances, it forms a thick deposit called plaque which makes the pumping and circulation of blood difficult.  Low level of LDL cholesterol reduces heart attacks and strokes. 

High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is considered good cholesterol as it moves LDL cholesterol from arteries.   HDL does the duty of a scavenger carrying LDL to liver where it is broken down. High level of HDL cholesterol lowers the risks of heart attacks and strokes. 

Triglycerides is a type of fat, which stores excess energy from your diet. High levels of triglycerides are caused by obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, excess alcohol consumption and bad diet habits. Genetic disorders also lead to high triglycerides. If triglycerides level is high, total cholesterol level is also found to be high, with high LDL level and low HDL level. 

Lp(a) cholesterol is  a genetic variation of LDL cholesterol. A high level of Lp(a) results in  fatty deposits in arteries. Researchers are still studying Lp(a) cholesterol.

How is cholesterol measured?


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Test reports of cholesterol in US and some other countries mention  cholesterol levels in milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). In Canada and most European countries the unit is  mmol / L unit, millimoles of cholesterol per liter of blood.

Let us examine the various levels. It may be noted that ideal cholesterol levels in your country may slightly vary from the numbers in the below given tables. It may also be noted that the numbers mentioned are that applicable to an otherwise healthy person. Those numbers may vary in persons who are undergoing treatments, consume alcohol etc. The numbers may give a general idea, but your physician is the best person to advise  the ideal levels for you. 

Total cholesterol 

Total cholesterol is the sum of HDL, LDL, and VLDL. Usually, the total, HDL, and triglycerides are measured. VLDL is usually estimated as one-fifth of the triglycerides.

USA -mg/dL

Canada and Europe mmol/L


Below 200

Below 5.2




Borderline high

240 and above

Above 6.2



LDL cholesterol

USA -mg/dL

Canada and Europe mmol/L



2.6 -3.3

Near ideal



Borderline high




190 and above

Above 4.9

Very high


HDL cholesterol


USA -mg/dL

Canada and Europe mmol/L



Below 40

Below 1



Below 50

Below 1.3










Men & women

60 and above

1.6 and above




USA -mg/dL

Canada and Europe mmol/L


Below 150

Below 1.7




Borderline high




500 and above

Above 5.6

Very high


What precautions shall be taken to control cholesterol?

1.    Regular exercise for minimum 30 minutes and other physical activities
2.    Quitting
smoking and abstaining from alcohol
3.    Good dietary habits. 


The following foods support in lowering cholesterol levels. 

a.    Oatmeal and high fiber foods
b.    Fish and the omega 3 fatty acids present in them 
c.    Olive oil: the mix of antioxidants lowers LDL cholesterol.
d.    Walnuts, almonds and  other
e.    Foods with added plant sterols or stansols
f.    Reducing meat and dairy products

Elizabeth Paul


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