Understanding the difference between HDL and LDL is very important for keeping your cholesterol under control. Let’s take a look at what they are and how they differ.
Cholesterol often gets bad rap when it comes to our health, but in actual fact, it is a naturally occurring substance found in our body that is vital for many metabolic processes such as the production of hormones and Vitamin D, cell building and food digestion.
Cholesterol is, however, closely linked with cardiovascular disease and other health problems, so understanding what it is and how it affects your health is very important.
Cholesterol travels through your bloodstream in ‘packages’ called lipoproteins along with other types of fat and proteins. There are two main kinds of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol through your body: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).
These two lipoproteins are what is known as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol. Being able to differentiate between the two is very important for ensuring the levels of the latter are kept to a minimum for the sake of your health. Let’s take a look at the difference between HDL and LDL.
High-density Lipoprotein (HDL) – Good Cholesterol
The ‘density’ of a lipoprotein is dictated by the amounts of fat (lipid) and protein in the particle.
High-density lipoprotein – abbreviated as HDL – is what is commonly known as ‘good’ cholesterol. HDL is the smallest and densest of the lipoproteins. This is because it contains comparatively low fat content compared to protein, with a core comprised mainly of cholesterol (and remember, cholesterol is vital for your body’s metabolic function).
HDL is what collects excess cholesterol and transports to the liver to be broken down and removed. It clings tightly to the cholesterol it carries, ensuring none gets loose and attaches itself to the walls of your arteries.
Having higher amounts of HDL is important as it lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease. It can be considered as a protective mechanism in your bloodstream.
Low-density Lipoproteins (LDL) – Bad Cholesterol
Low-density lipoprotein – abbreviated as LDL – is what is commonly known as ‘bad’ cholesterol. The particles are roughly twice as big as high-density lipoproteins and, as you may have guessed, are lower in density because they have a higher fat to protein ratio.
Although it is referred to as ‘bad’ cholesterol, LDL is still important as it is the primary transporter of cholesterol in your bloodstream, and is crucial for hormone production and the rebuilding of cell structures. However, too much LDL can have a detrimental impact on your health.
An excess of LDL in the bloodstream can lead to a buildup of cholesterol and other substances in the arteries called plaque. Plaque is a thick, hard deposit that can clog the arteries leading to a condition called atherosclerosis – a hardening and narrowing of the arteries. This can result in clotting and a reduction of blood flow to vital parts of your body, which can cause a heart attack or stroke. Thus, it is very important to keep the levels of LDL in your body under control.
Very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL)
Very-low density lipoprotein – abbreviated as VLDL – is another major lipoproteins alongside LDL and HDL, but receives less attention as it only makes up a small portion of your total blood cholesterol. Its extra low-density is attributed to its very high fat content, which makes up roughly half of the lipoprotein.
VLDL deposits cholesterol in the arteries supplying blood to the heart, and is necessary for maintaining the cell structures of this vital tissue. However, like LDL, an excess of VLDL can lead to a buildup of plaque and the narrowing of the artery walls, which can cause a heart attack.
When you eat, any fats that aren’t immediately converted for energy are stored for later use – these are known as triglycerides. In between meals, when your body needs a burst of energy, your hormones releases these fats for consumption.
Triglycerides are what make up the fat content of lipoproteins, and therefore high triglyceride levels in your body can contribute to the buildup of plaque and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The combination of LDL, triglyceride and HDL levels in your blood is what is what is known as your total cholesterol level.
Total Blood Cholesterol – Knowing Your Numbers
With all these different components at play, it can be hard to wrap your head around what cholesterol levels are considered safe and what you need to be careful of. But when broken down is it actually quite simple.
Your total blood cholesterol consists of your HDL, LDL, and 20 percent of your total triglycerides. According to the Better Health Channel, the recommendation from health authorities in Australia is to have total blood cholesterol levels of no more than 5.5mmol/L. Any higher than this is considered high.
In a 2013 health survey on cholesterol, the Australian Bureau of Statistics define abnormal levels of each component as the following:
HDL – Generally speaking, the higher this number the better. Less than 1.0 mmol/L for men and less than 1.3 mmol/L for women is considered abnormal.
LDL – Generally speaking, the lower this number the better. LDL cholesterol greater than or equal to 3.5 mmol/L is considered abnormal.
VLDL – Levels any higher than 1.7 mmol/L are considered abnormal.
Triglycerides – Your triglyceride levels should be below 8.3 mmol/L.
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