Februari 7, 2008
There’s no such thing as a “normal” cholesterol level, but we do have targets to aim for.
HDL (“good cholesterol”): The higher your HDL is, the more protection you get against atherosclerosis. I tell everyone to try to get their HDL up to at least 40. Low HDL values, below 35-40 mg/dl, are considered dangerous, while numbers above 60-65 mg/dl actually reduce your risk.
There is a little disagreement on the specific thresholds. Men are generally told to strive for higher levels than women, because men have greater risk of atherosclerosis than women the same age. The best way to increase your HDL is with exercise. Diet and current medications don’t have very much effect.
Triglycerides: High triglyceride levels not only increase the risk of atherosclerosis, they can also cause liver disease and pancreatitis. Most experts agree that everyone should try to keep their triglycerides below 150 mg/dl.
Our bodies produce triglycerides as a way of storing excess energy to be used later. Even though they are the building blocks of fat, the main cause for high triglycerides is too much sugar and simple starch in the diet. Cutting down on sweets, sodas, bread, rice, noodles, potatoes and similar starchy foods can help a lot.
LDL (“bad cholesterol”): Safe levels of LDL are the most complicated to determine. Because people at higher risk for heart attack and stroke will benefit most from reducing their LDL, we set the lowest target values for them. There are also two different sets of goals, depending upon how aggressive you want to be. But in any case, lower is almost always better for both LDL and triglycerides.
Studies show that heart attack risk continues to drop as you lower your LDL level, regardless of your other health problems. The best way to reduce your LDL is to cut down on fat in your diet. A few common sources of fat include fried foods, milk, cheese, egg yolks and creamy sauces or dressings.