Understanding the Numbers Behind Your Cholesterol Score and Why They're Important

A poster explains the dangers of high cholesterol.
A poster explains the dangers of high cholesterol at the Internal Medicine Clinic, William Beaumont Army Medical Center, Fort Bliss, Texas, Feb. 12, 2016. (Marcy Sanchez/U.S. Army photo)

My brother-in-law got a checkup this week as he nears his 40th birthday and was alarmed by his elevated cholesterol scores. Knowing he is not the healthiest eater and gets his exercise by playing sports (basketball, volleyball, etc.), he asked me what he should eat, not eat and do for better exercise.

It is important to know and understand your cholesterol scores as well as know the difference between HDL, LDL and triglycerides. High cholesterol has been proven to lead to heart disease, the number one killer in the U.S. As defined by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), cholesterol is "a soft, waxy substance. It is made in sufficient quantities by the body for normal body function, including the manufacture of hormones, bile acid and vitamin D. It is present in all parts of the body, including the nervous system, muscle, skin, liver, intestines, heart, etc."

Your scores Include:

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): These protein packages carry the "bad" cholesterol that can build up within your arteries and lead to a heart attack or stroke. Keep this level under 100 mg/dl for an optimal score.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL): This is the "good" cholesterol that you want to be higher, because it carries the LDL/cholesterol to the liver to be metabolized. The lower the HDL number, the more likely your LDL and triglycerides are not getting metabolized properly. Keep this level above 60 mg/dl.

Total cholesterol: A score under 200 mg/dl is ideal, and anything above 230-240 requires immediate efforts to decrease.

Triglycerides: This score is just fat that floats around in your blood. Keep this number less than 150 mg/dl, as triglycerides lead to the same issues as LDLs. Along with cholesterol, the body needs triglycerides for energy, but increased levels are detrimental to your health.

Here is a list of what to do to lower LDL and raise HDL:

  • Eat a healthy diet low in saturated fats and cholesterol.
  • Start to exercise more to burn fat.
  • Lose weight.
  • Take medication, if needed.

I can help you with the first three ways to lower cholesterol, but a doctor will have to give you recommendations on what medicines work the best for you. In most people, however, a healthy diet, fitness and loss in weight will help, but medication is needed in some cases. Warning: Some medications can cause weight gain, water retention and other side effects, so keep a careful watch over any symptoms that may occur when on medication for high cholesterol. With your doctor, find the one that works best for you.

People respond differently to methods of reducing cholesterol scores. Some will need medication right away, but we all need to eat better and exercise. If you have a family history of high cholesterol, start working today to keep it low.

What to eat/not eat:

According to the NIH, foods lower in cholesterol, saturated fat and higher in complex carbohydrates and fiber can help you fight higher LDLs better. Here is a list of dos and don'ts, though it is not a complete list:

Eat More

Eat Less

Skim milk

Whole milk

Fish (tuna/salmon)

Red meat (or trim fat)

Lean meat/beef

Fatty meats/organ meat

Bread, pasta

Butter, fatty sauces on foods

Fruits/vegetables (raw/steamed)

Fatty foods/processed sugar


Fried rice


French fries

Oat, barley, bran, nut


Vegetable/olive oil



Sour cream




Polyunsaturated fats

Saturated fats in meat

Monounsaturated fats

Saturated fats in coconut, palm oil, etc.


trans fatty acids


"Hydrogenated" anything

Fitness to burn fat and lose weight:

Fitness has multiple benefits that include decreasing triglycerides, chance of diabetes, heart disease, blood pressure, strengthening bones and muscles, and increasing HDL. A basic plan of walking more is the number one method of burning fat for most people. If you can add in weightscalisthenicsstretching or some other resistance training to build up or firm muscles, you can increase your fat-burning metabolism further than cardiovascular activity alone.

See articles in the Military.com Fitness Center for more ideas on cardio and other workouts.

For best results, the order of your workout helps you burn more fat. Do your weights, body-weight exercises, fast running or cardio first to burn blood sugar (glycogen) for about 20-30 minutes, then do a lower-intensity cardio of walking, jogging, swimming or biking at a steady pace to burn more stored fat. 

Cholesterol is no joke. It is made in the body and needed for vital functions. However, if you add too many fatty foods into your diet, it upsets the natural balance and gets stored in our circulatory system, clogging it and causing potentially serious problems.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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