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Medically reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol (pronounced: kuh-LES-tuh-rawl) is a fatty substance found in blood.

The liver makes cholesterol for your body. We also get cholesterol from some foods  — especially animal products like meat, eggs, butter, cheese, and milk. Many of the foods that have cholesterol are also high in saturated and trans fats. Those two kinds of fat can increase LDL cholesterol.

Foods from plants, like fruit, vegetables, and grains don't have any cholesterol.

How Much Cholesterol Do We Need?

Cholesterol is in every cell of your body. Your body needs cholesterol to make hormones and help your brain, skin, and other organs work the way they should. But too much cholesterol in the blood can clog the arteries that carry blood around your body.

Cholesterol that builds up in a person's blood vessels over many years could lead to:

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

Cholesterol can start to build up in childhood and teen years. Doctors can find out what your cholesterol level is by ordering a blood test.

What Are the Kinds of Cholesterol?

Cholesterol in the blood doesn't move through the body on its own. It combines with proteins to travel through the bloodstream. Cholesterol and protein traveling together are called lipoproteins. 

The two main types of cholesterol are:

LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, or "bad cholesterol." This type of cholesterol can combine with proteins and other substances in the blood to make plaque. Cholesterol plaques can buildup and cause blood vessels to become stiffer, narrower, or blocked. 

HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, or "good cholesterol," doesn't clog arteries. HDL cholesterol removes cholesterol from the blood vessels and carries it back to the liver, where it is broken down and removed from the body.

Here's an easy way to remember which is which: LDL starts with "L" for "lousy." HDL starts with "H" for "healthy."

High levels of LDL cholesterol and low levels of HDL cholesterol increase a person's risk of having heart disease.

What If I 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, and exercising more.

Here are 5 things you can do:

  1. Eat lots of different healthy foods, especially fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  2. Limit drinks and foods that have a lot of fat or sugar, like sugary drinks, treats, and fried foods.
  3. Get plenty of exercise. Experts recommend at least 60 minutes every day!
  4. Stay at a healthy weight.
  5. Don't smoke.

People with high cholesterol might need to take medicine to if these lifestyle changes don't lower their cholesterol.

Medically reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: May 2022