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What is LDL Cholesterol?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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LDL refers to low-density lipoproteins, a type of molecular protein produced in the liver that carries cholesterol through the blood. Though low-density lipoprotein is frequently called "bad" cholesterol, it does have some positive features. It carries amino acids and antioxidants to other cells. However, too much LDL can lead to a number of significant health problems, so the positive aspects of this protein are far outweighed by its negative impacts.

In general, when one hears the term cholesterol, it refers to low-density lipoproteins. This is because LDL cholesterol provides a steady stream of cholesterol to the arteries. When advertisements claim a product can reduce your cholesterol, they are referring to the risks of high LDL levels.

Those with high levels of LDL cholesterol are at great risk for hardening of the arteries or artery blockage, which can enlarge the heart or completely cut off blood supply to the heart. This, in turn, can lead to heart attacks, or necessitate surgery to remove blockages. Other main arteries in the body can also become blocked, a condition known as peripheral artery disease, and require clearing via catheterization to restore normal blood flow to and from the heart.

High cholesterol also increases the risk of sudden stroke. Clogged arteries can lead to excess clotting of the blood. These clots can then pass to the brain or lungs, causing thrombosis. The presence of low-density lipoproteins can also decrease the level of high-density lipoproteins, known as the "good" cholesterol.

Given the very dangerous medical conditions associated with high levels of LDL, it makes sense to keep one's levels of this protein at a very low rate. Testing for LDL cholesterol is quite simple, usually requiring a simple blood test to measure all cholesterol levels in the body. A physician may require that you fast for 12 hours prior to testing, but usually the test itself only takes a few minutes.

The American Heart Association (AHA) has adopted the following standards for evaluating safe and unsafe levels of LDL. Less than 100 milligrams per deciliter is considered optimal. 100-129 is considered near optimal, while 130-159 is borderline high. 160-189 is high, and anything over 190 is very high. Further AHA guidelines suggest anyone with heart disease should try to maintain an LDL of no more than 70.

Reducing LDL cholesterol levels can be simple for some. Following a diet with lower saturated fat and higher fiber, plus exercising, can sometimes be enough to lower cholesterol to accepted levels. Others, however, may need to combine diet and exercise with cholesterol-reducing drugs. A common mistake is the belief that cholesterol can be lowered by medication alone. In general, this is not true, and in any case, those with high cholesterol are at greater risk for heart disease, so adhering to a sensible diet and exercise regimen make sense in any case.

Another common mistake people make is assuming that body size indicates cholesterol level. While it is true that overweight people tend to have higher levels of LDL cholesterol, it does not follow that thin people cannot have high levels. In some cases, high levels of bad cholesterol are genetically predetermined. Family history of high cholesterol is reason for greater vigilance in anyone.

Though high cholesterol levels occur more frequently in men, women still need to have their levels checked. While pre-menopausal women tend to have lower levels because estrogen blocks some cholesterol production, post-menopausal women do not have this safeguard. As a woman approaches menopause, the AHA recommends checking cholesterol levels. The AHA does not advocate using hormone replacement therapy for lowering cholesterol, as use of estrogen has recently been shown to increase the risk of stroke and certain cancers.

A high LDL level is a matter of concern, but fortunately it can often be medically addressed. Working closely with a physician to create a better diet and a good exercise program, and to determine whether cholesterol-reducing drugs should be applied, is an excellent way to prevent the health conditions associated with bad cholesterol.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon217241 — On Sep 24, 2011

LDl cholesterol is bad cholesterol. All you can do is to avoid the sources that can deliver this cholesterol to your body and if you are having high levels of ldl cholesterol then you can treat it by care, cure and courage.

By Georgesplane — On Jan 19, 2011

Thanks for the responses everyone. I don't feel like lowering my cholesterol is such an uphill fight any more. I am hoping that I can reduce my levels without medication.

By Amphibious54 — On Jan 18, 2011

@ Georgesplane- I went to my doctor for my regular yearly a few months back, and I discovered that my LDL cholesterol had crept into the borderline high range and my HDL cholesterol was lower than optimal. I was able to make a few simple changes in my diet and have my cholesterol levels corrected in about four months.

My Vice has always been hamburgers, homemade top shelf beef burgers not the fast food kind, so I knew where to make my first dietary changes. I started replacing my once to twice a week burger with grilled fish, chicken, or turkey, only having my burgers once a month. I also started eating a homemade salad every day, loaded with things like boiled black beans, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, cucumbers, onions, and dressings made with oils instead of saturated fats. Within no time, my cholesterol was back to the low range, being at the low end of the near optimal range. The changes weren't too drastic, but they worked.

By Babalaas — On Jan 16, 2011

@ Georgesplane- One of the worst foods for those watching cholesterol are foods with high amounts of trans fats. Not only do trans fats raise ldl cholesterol, they also reduce hdl cholesterol (the good stuff). Foods that contain trans fats are often sweet and heavily processed foods. Trans fats will help these foods maintain shelf stability, but are also very bad for the heart.

Some of the best foods to lower ldl cholesterol are foods that contain soluble fiber and olive oil. A diet that consists of at least 10 grams of soluble fiber will help keep your ldl cholesterol levels low according to the Mayo Clinic. To gain the benefits from olive oil, you should consume about two tablespoons per day in place of other fats, preferably trans and saturated fats. These two substances essentially block and absorb the ldl cholesterol before it enters your blood stream. For a cholesterol busting lunch you could eat an albacore tuna salad sandwich made with olive oil on double fiber bread, paired with a salad and a short walk afterward.

By Georgesplane — On Jan 13, 2011

What types of foods are known to reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol? Are there any foods that trigger significantly higher levels of LDL cholesterol? What is the appropriate range for HDL cholesterol? How long does it take to lower bad LDL cholesterol?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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