What is cholesterol?

Published May 7, 2014

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Cholesterol is a type of fat that’s a part of all cells. Despite its reputation, cholesterol isn’t all bad. While too much cholesterol can be harmful, just the right amount is essential for our health. The body uses cholesterol to:1

  • Build cell membranes
  • Make estrogen, testosterone and adrenal hormones
  • Produce bile acids, which help the body digest fat and absorb important nutrients
  • Make vitamin D

Cholesterol is produced in the liver and can also be made by most cells in the body. It’s also found in certain foods including eggs and animal products. These are fine to eat in moderation as part of a balanced diet, but the body can produce all the cholesterol that it needs; the body doesn’t require food for its cholesterol needs.

What is HDL and LDL cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that doesn’t dissolve in liquid. This means that it isn’t easily carried in the bloodstream on its own. To overcome this, the body packages it and other fats, including triglycerides, into miniscule protein‐covered particles known as lipoproteins, which help carry it around the body.2 The two main types of lipoproteins are high density lipoproteins (HDL) and low density lipoproteins (LDL). Both play important roles in the body such as:2

  • LDL particles carry cholesterol to the parts of the body that need it at any given time. Unfortunately, if you have too much LDL in your bloodstream it can deposit cholesterol in your arteries and cause major problems, hence why LDL cholesterol is known as ‘bad cholesterol.’
  • HDL particles pick up excess cholesterol from cells and tissues and carry it back to the liver where it’s either used to make bile or recycled.2 This is why HDL cholesterol is known as ‘good cholesterol’.

Having the right balance between HDL and LDL cholesterol is important for keeping our heart healthy and reducing the risk of problems. To support healthy levels it’s recommended to:1

  • Reduce alcohol intake
  • Don’t smoke
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Limit foods high in saturated fats such as salami and sausages, takeaway foods, cakes and pastries
  • Omega 3 fatty acids from fish oil may also play a role in maintaining normal cholesterol levels in healthy people.

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