If you’ve had your cholesterol checked, the results can be confusing. The numbers will indicate total serum cholesterol, HDL cholesterol level, LDL cholesterol level and triglyceride level. Your doctor will take all these numbers into consideration when determining whether your cholesterol levels put you at risk for heart disease. If you’ve been told that you have good LDL levels but low HDL levels should you be worried? Not necessarily.
LDL (high-density lipoprotein) transports cholesterol through the blood and deposits it in the body’s tissues. Over time, cholesterol deposits can narrow the coronary arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease. HLD (high-density lipoprotein) collects excess cholesterol from the blood and returns it to the liver. It can remove cholesterol deposits before they have a chance to form artery-blocking plaque. High levels of LDL cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease. High levels of HDL reduce the risk.
An LDL level of less than 100 mg/dl is considered optimal with less than 130 mg/dl in the low risk range. Your doctor may tell you that your LDL cholesterol level is ‘good’ if it’s 129 or under. An HDL above 60 mg/dl or higher gives some protection against heart disease. Less than 40 mg/dl for men and less than 50 mg/dl for women is considered ‘low’.
Because HDL lessens the potential for damage caused by LDL, what matters most may not be the individual HDL and LDL levels, but the balance between the two. You can determine your LDL/HDL ratio by dividing your LDL level by your HDL level. The balance is considered to be good if the result is below 3.
Let’s look at a couple of examples. Say your LDL level is 125 mg/dl, at the higher end of the ‘good’ range and your HDL is in the ‘low’ range at 35 mg/dl. 125 LDL/ 35 HDL = 3.57. This number is higher than 3, so you should probably take steps to raise your HDL. But what if your LDL is optimal at 98 mg/dl? 98 LDL/35 HDL = 2.8. This number is below 3, meaning you have a good balance of LDL and HDL.
If you have a good LDL/HDL ratio, your ‘low’ HDL level might not put you at greater risk for heart disease, but it’s no excuse for being complacent either. Always discuss your results with your doctor, who will take other risk factors into account before either telling you there’s nothing to worry about or recommending lifestyle changes.
There are many ways to increase low HDL levels. If you’re a couch potato, make a point of doing regular physical exercise. Walking or cycling rather than driving will make a difference. If you’re a smoker, giving up the habit will effectively raise your HDL. If you are overweight or obese, start on a healthy weight-loss regime, especially if excess fat is carried around your waistline. Even if your weight is ideal, there are changes you can make to your diet to increase your HDL levels. Eat more foods high in omega-3 such as oily fish. Eat more soluble fibre such as that found in oats. Switch to monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and eliminate partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.