Can Cholesterol Be A Good Thing?

The world of fitness and nutrition is often simplified into clear divisions of black and white. Good is good, bad is bad. There are definite heroes and absolute villains.

And, while this makes certain things fairly easy to understand, the underlying idea is entirely false. Most of the time, things really aren’t that straightforward. A prime example of this can be seen in the oft-demonized cholesterol. In general, this particular type of fat is viewed as something evil and harmful that should be avoided as much as possible.

But the situation really isn’t that simple. Here’s what you really need to know about cholesterol.

What It Is

As mentioned above, cholesterol is a type of fat. Which immediately taints its reputation for many people. It’s important to know, however, that your body – specifically your liver – actually makes a fair amount of cholesterol. In fact, most of the cholesterol found in your blood at any given time is actually produced in-house.

Of course, cholesterol can also be found in your food. Meats and other animal-based foods are the most common sources.

Although people typically talk about cholesterol as if it is just one thing, the truth is that it comes in two very distinct varieties. The first, called high density lipoprotein (HDL) is commonly known as “good” cholesterol. As you might naturally assume, then, the other type – low density lipoprotein (LDL) – is usually classified as bad cholesterol.

But what makes one good and one bad? Why is your liver cranking out this potentially harmful substance? To answer those questions, one must understand how cholesterol acts in your blood stream.

What It Does

As a fat, cholesterol stands apart due to its somewhat unique waxy texture. Also, unlike other fats, your body tends to avoid using cholesterol as fuel. As a result, this waxy substance is left floating around your system – readily available to be used for other projects.

Because of its texture, cholesterol is especially useful as a material in the building and maintenance of cell walls. Technically, both LDL and HDL can be used for this purpose.

The distinction between these two forms of cholesterol, though, is most important when they are still in your blood stream. As HDL floats around, it picks up other fats and debris that could be clogging your blood vessels.

LDL, unfortunately, essentially does the opposite – leaving a dense trail of clutter in its wake. As this metabolic trash builds up, it collects in your blood vessels, clogging them up and eventually causing the usually flexible walls to harden. 

Know Your Numbers

Clearly, you want HDL but want to avoid LDL as much as possible. The primary tool used in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is a simple blood test. Rather than giving you just one number, though, these tests will provide you with a few different figures that paint a larger picture of what’s going on.

Here’s what to expect from your cholesterol test and what to look for when reading the results:

  • Total cholesterol – This is the overall count of your cholesterol with no distinction between the two forms. For most people, this should be below 200.
  • LDL – The typical recommendation is to keep LDL levels below 130 but, when it comes to this fat, lower is better.
  • HDL – Your numbers of this good cholesterol should be 60 or above.
  • Triglycerides – Although they aren’t actually a form a cholesterol, triglycerides are generally measured as part of the same test. As the most common form of fat in your body, triglycerides can combine with both types of cholesterol to create potentially dangerous build-up in your blood vessels. Keep your triglyceride levels below 150.