Sooner or later, your doctor will probably talk to you about your cholesterol levels. But not all cholesterol is created equal. Doctors are specifically concerned about high levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or the “bad” cholesterol, because it increases your risk of heart attack.

Your body produces all of the LDL cholesterol it needs, but some people are genetically predisposed to produce more than they need. As you age, your cholesterol levels rise.

Other factors that increase LDL cholesterol include eating a diet rich in saturated fats and processed foods, being overweight, and getting limited physical activity.

While having low LDL cholesterol is ideal, the body requires some cholesterol in order to function properly.

On the other hand, if you have higher levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) — the “good” cholesterol — it may provide some protection from heart disease.

HDL cholesterol helps rid the body of bad cholesterol and keeps it from collecting on the linings of your arteries. Cholesterol buildup can lead to severe health events such as heart attack or stroke.

Having lower HDL cholesterol does not appear to cause problems directly. But it’s an important characteristic to note when identifying individuals who may have an overall unhealthy lifestyle.

Recommendations for more healthy choices include:

Getting 30 minutes of physical activity — the kind that raises your heart rate — five times a week can improve your HDL cholesterol and lower your LDL and triglycerides. This can be walking, running, swimming, biking, rollerblading, or whatever suits your fancy.

As if you needed another reason to quit, smoking decreases HDL cholesterol. Lower HDL in smokers leaves the blood vessels more open to damage. This can make it more likely for smokers to develop heart disease.

Quitting now can boost your good cholesterol, lower your LDL and triglycerides, as well as provide a host of other health-friendly benefits.

The American Heart Association recommends a diet that contains a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and lean proteins such as soy, poultry, and fish. Your diet should be low in salt, sugar, saturated fats, trans fats, and red meat.

Choosing healthy fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil and avocados, can help improve your HDL cholesterol. Omega-3 fatty acids also contribute to heart health.

Currently, the American Heart Association does not recommend drinking alcohol for heart health due to the risks related to high alcohol intake. However, moderate alcohol intake — one drink or fewer per day for women and two drinks or fewer a day for men — may raise HDL cholesterol to a small degree.

Talk to your doctor about the potential of supplementing your cholesterol therapy with niacin, fibrates, or omega-3 fatty acids.

A simple blood test can judge three important levels in your blood. This is known as your lipid profile. Healthy cholesterol levels are associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

Lowering the risk of heart disease is now the main focus for cholesterol treatment rather than achieving a particular number. Some recommendations may include:

  • Lowering LDL cholesterol. Levels over 190 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) are considered dangerous.
  • Improving HDL cholesterol. Around 60 mg/dL is considered protective, but less than 40 mg/dL is a risk factor for heart disease.
  • Lowering total cholesterol. Less than 200 mg/dL is typically recommended.
  • Lowering triglycerides. Less than 150 is considered normal range.

Overall, the best way to lead a heart-healthy lifestyle is to focus on changes that include steps toward healthy living. These recommendations include regular physical activity, heart healthy eating, and not smoking.

A lower HDL level is a sign that there is room for improvement when it comes to making heart-healthy choices.

How can cholesterol be good?

  • Some HDL cholesterol particles lower heart attack and stroke risk. Some HDL also acts as an antioxidant. This helps keep the LDL from being attacked by free radicals, which can make LDL more harmful.