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Cholesterol Is a Fat in the Blood

Cholesterol (kuh-LES-tuh-rawl) is a type of fat found in your blood. You need cholesterol to help your brain, skin, and other organs grow and work the way they should.

Your liver makes cholesterol for your body. You also get cholesterol from some of the foods you eat — especially animal products like meat, eggs, butter, cheese, and milk.

You Need a Little, Not a Lot

Your body needs some cholesterol to help your organs grow and work. But too much cholesterol in the blood can clog the arteries that carry blood around your body. People with high cholesterol might need to take medicine to lower the amount that floats around in their blood.

If cholesterol builds up in a person’s blood vessels over many years, it might lead to:

  • a heart attack that can damage the heart
  • a stroke that can damage the brain

Both kids and adults can have too much cholesterol in their blood. Doctors can find out what your cholesterol level is by ordering a blood test.

Two Kinds of Cholesterol

There are two main types of cholesterol: LDL and HDL. The cholesterol blood test tells how much of each kind you have.

  1. Most cholesterol is LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. This type is most likely to make something called plaque that can clog a person’s arteries. Plaque keeps blood from flowing through the body the way it should. People often call LDL cholesterol “bad cholesterol.”
  2. HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol doesn’t clog arteries. HDL cholesterol removes cholesterol from the blood vessels and carries it back to the liver, where it can be processed and sent out of the body. That’s why people often call HDL “good cholesterol.”

Here’s an easy way to remember which is which: LDL starts with “l” for “lousy.” HDL starts with “h” for “healthy.”

Food and Cholesterol

Foods with cholesterol include:

  • meat
  • eggs
  • butter
  • cheese
  • milk

And here are some foods that don’t have cholesterol:

  • fruit
  • vegetables
  • grains (like oatmeal)

It’s OK to eat some food with cholesterol. You just don’t want to eat too much. Many of the foods that have cholesterol are also high in saturated and trans fats. Those two kinds of fat can increase LDL cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol increase a person’s chances of having heart disease and strokes.

What If You Have High Cholesterol?

If a blood test shows you have high cholesterol, talk to your doctor. He or she can give you advice on what you can do to lower your cholesterol — like eating less fried food and choosing low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt.

Plaque can start building up in the arteries when people are in their teens. That’s why it’s good to keep your heart healthy now.

Here are four things you can do:

  1. Eat lots of different healthy foods, especially fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  2. Get plenty of exercise.
  3. Stay at a healthy weight.
  4. Don’t smoke.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: May 2015