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Understanding Cholesterol Numbers

by Dr. Christopher Notley

Key points :

  • LDL – low density lipoproteins. Normal levels are 100-129mg/dl (US) or 2.6-3.3mmol/L (Canada).
  • HDL – high density lipoproteins. Normal levels are anything above 40mg/dL or 1 mmol/L in men and above 50mg/dL or 1.3mmol/L in women).
  • Triglycerides – Associated with high sugar consumption and diabetes. Desirable levels are below 150mg/dL or 1.7mmol/L.
  • Total Cholesterol – Is related to LDL, HDL and triglycerides. Only knowing this number does not tell you the whole picture.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance which is found naturally in the walls of cells. It is also extremely important for the production of many of the hormones in our body such as vitamin D, bile salts, testosterone, and estrogens. High cholesterol is associated with the formation of atherosclerotic plaque in the arteries which can lead to heart attack or stroke. This plaque forms from damage to the walls of your arteries due to smoking, high blood pressure, infection, high levels of oxidized LDL (the bad cholesterol), and inflammation. In a world of stress, processed foods, fast food meals and refined sugars found in so many of our foods the potential for plaque formation is high. This damage leads to the infiltration of cholesterol, specifically LDL, into the wall of the artery. This leads to the narrowing of the opening of the blood vessels which can ultimately lead to the obstruction of artery and thus no blood provided to the area that the artery provides, such as the heart.

Who should be tested?

There are no signs and symptoms of high cholesterol. High cholesterol can be found in people who appear healthy. This is yet another example of how appearing healthy does not necessarily mean you are health. Because high cholesterol is silent a blood test is required. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Manitoba suggests the following people should have their cholesterol checked:

  • You are male and over 40
  • You are female and over 50 or post-menopausal
  • You have heart disease, stroke, diabetes or high blood pressure
  • Your waist measures more than 102 centimetres (40 inches) for men or 88 centimetres (35 inches) for women
  • You have a family history of heart disease or stroke If your doctor is checking your cholesterol his likely assessing your risk for heart disease and stroke. He/she will show you numbers you may not understand the meaning of. If your doctor doesn’t show you the numbers be pro-active about your health and ask for the numbers. A better understanding of your cholesterol levels will help you understand what you need to avoid to help you manage your health naturally.

What do the numbers mean?

LDL level:

LDL is the acronym for low density lipoproteins. It is considered the bad cholesterol because high levels are associated with plaque in the arteries. LDL is increased due consumption of saturated fats, being overweight, inactivity, smoking and consuming trans fatty acids.

LDL cholesterol

(U.S. and some other countries)
LDL cholesterol

(Canada and most of Europe)
Below 70 mg/dL
Below 1.8 mmol/L
Optimal for people at very high risk of heart disease
Below 100 mg/dL
Below 2.6 mmol/L
Optimal for people at risk of heart disease
100-129 mg/dL
2.6-3.3 mmol/L
Near optimal
130-159 mg/dL
3.4-4.1 mmol/L
Borderline high
160-189 mg/dL
4.1-4.9 mmol/L
190 mg/dL and above
Above 4.9 mmol/L
Very high

HDL levels:

HDL is the acronym for high density lipoproteins. It is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease. It removes cholesterol from the cardiovascular system therefore the higher the HDL the less the risk of heart disease. HDL is reduced due to in activity.

HDL cholesterol

(U.S. and some other countries)
HDL cholesterol

(Canada and most of Europe)
Below 40 mg/dL (men)

Below 50 mg/dL (women)
Below 1 mmol/L (men)

Below 1.3 mmol/L (women)
50-59 mg/dL
1.3-1.5 mmol/L
60 mg/dL and above
Above 1.5 mmol/L


Triglycerides are not really cholesterol but they are another form of fat. The provide energy and are stored in your fat tissue. There is a link between high triglycerides and coronary artery disease. High levels of triglycerides are related to diabetes and high simple sugar consumption.


(U.S. and some other countries)

(Canada and most of Europe)
Below 150 mg/dL
Below 1.7 mmol/L
150-199 mg/dL
1.7-2.2 mmol/L
Borderline high
200-499 mg/dL
2.3-5.6 mmol/L
500 mg/dL and above
Above 5.6 mmol/L
Very high

Total Cholesterol

Your total cholesterol is based on your LDL, HDL and triglycerides. Total cholesterol is called using the formula:

Total cholesterol= LDL + HDL + TG/5.

Looking at total cholesterol alone does not tell the whole story. You need to look at each individual value to evaluate why the cholesterol is as high as it is. For example, if you have a high HDL it will push up your total making it look higher than someone with a low HDL and high LDL.

Total cholesterol

(U.S. and some other countries)
Total cholesterol

(Canada and most of Europe)
Below 200 mg/dL
Below 5.2 mmol/L
200-239 mg/dL
5.2-6.2 mmol/L
Borderline high
240 mg/dL and above
Above 6.2 mmol/L

References and Sites of Interest

Originally posted 2013-06-11 16:19:54.