You've probably heard the terms "good cholesterol" and "bad cholesterol" bandied about and may not understand their significance. Cholesterol is one of the risk factors for heart disease, so it pays to know what it is and how you can control it.


Cholesterol is a naturally occurring waxy substance that attaches to proteins in our blood and travels throughout our body. High-density lipoprotein (HDL or good cholesterol) takes excess cholesterol to the liver, which breaks it down, while low-density lipoprotein (LDL or bad cholesterol) may build up in your blood vessels, restricting blood flow and putting you at increased risk for heart disease. Our bodies need the right balance of and good and bad cholesterol.

How much cholesterol is just right?

In theory, the more HDL you have, the less LDL will circulate in your blood, which lowers your risk for heart disease. However,  according to Dean Ornish, MD, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, not everything that raises HDL is good for us (for example, a cheeseburger), and not everything that lowers HDL is bad.

High fat, high protein, low carbohydrate diets such as the Adkins diet can clog your arteries, even though it raises your HDL level. In contrast, eating a plant-based diet (low fat, moderate protein, high carbohydrate) lowers your LDL and may reduce your HDL; as your LDL decreases, you need less HDL to counter it.

In fact, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recently stopped a large clinical trial early after it found that although lowering LDL decreases your risk for cardiovascular events, the data does not show that raising HDL similarly reduces risk.

Controlling your cholesterol

Dr. Ornish says we can prevent about 95 percent of heart attacks through simple diet and lifestyle modifications, which also lowers your risk for other serious health problems.

  • Don't smoke
  • Lose weight
  • Be physically active
  • Eat less saturated fats and more monosaturated and polysaturated fats, which have anti-inflammatory properties
  • Eat less sugar and simple carbs, which are associated with high total cholesterol and low HDL
  • Eat more whole grains, nuts (walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts), plant-based foods, and omega-3 fatty acids

Remember, cholesterol is just one risk factor for heart disease. Family history, body mass index, blood pressure, and smoking also affect your risk. If diet and exercise don't improve your ratio of good and bad cholesterol, see your physician for an evaluation.



Mayo Clinic. "HDL cholesterol: How to boost your 'good' cholesterol." Web. 4 June 2011.

Ornish, Dean, MD. "Cholesterol: The Good, the Bad and the Truth." Huffington Post. Web. 3 June 2011.

National Institutes on Health. "NIH stops clinical trial on combination cholesterol treatment." NIH News. Web. 26 May 2011.

Behrenbeck, Thomas, M.D., Ph.D. "Can your total cholesterol level be too low?" Mayo Clinic. Web. 12 August 2011.

O'Riordan, Michael. "New EAS Statement on High Triglycerides, Low HDL Cholesterol." Medscape Medical News. Web. 27 June 2011.