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Jul 16, 2021
5 min read

Is cholesterol a lipid? What do these terms mean?

Cholesterol is a type of lipid your body uses to make hormones, Vitamin D, and bile acids. Your body makes some of the cholesterol you need and the rest comes from your diet. In order to move through the bloodstream, your liver packages cholesterol and protein together to form lipoproteins. Keeping the level of these lipoproteins optimal will help lower your risk of heart disease.

steve silvestro

Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

Written by Ellyn Vohnoutka, BSN, RN

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

We all know how critical it is to take care of our heart health. Still, some of the medical terminologies around it can be confusing. 

Is cholesterol a lipid? What’s a low-density lipoprotein? What’s atherosclerosis? How are lipids measured, and what do these numbers mean? If you’ve had some of these questions, here’s a look at some of the most common medical terms surrounding cholesterol and lipids and why they matter to you and your health.

What is a lipid?

Lipids are fatty, waxy, or oily compounds. They’re essential to some of your body’s most vital processes. Lipids play a role in making (Ahmed, 2021):

  • Cell membranes: Lipids help protect the cell, keeping harmful substances out.
  • Earwax: Cerumen (also known as earwax) helps protect the ear canal.
  • Triglycerides: These help to store energy and aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.
  • Steroids: Cholesterol is an essential steroid used to make hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol. It’s also used to make vitamin D and bile acids.

By monitoring the lipid levels in your bloodstream, your healthcare provider can determine your risk for heart disease (Ahmed, 2021).

Is cholesterol a lipid?

Cholesterol is one of the many types of lipids found in your body. You’ll often hear healthcare providers using the terms “cholesterol” and “lipids” interchangeably.

Cholesterol doesn’t mix with water, so it combines with a particular type of protein that allows it to move through the bloodstream. This combination of lipid and protein is called a lipoprotein (Craig, 2020).

Your body both makes its own cholesterol and absorbs it from your diet. Approximately 20% of the cholesterol in your body is made in your liver and intestines (Craig, 2020). 

The primary source of dietary cholesterol is saturated fatty acids. Higher amounts of this type of fat can be found in (Janapala, 2021):

  • Dairy products
  • Meat
  • Salmon
  • Egg yolks
  • Chocolate
  • Cocoa butter
  • Coconut

Types of cholesterol lipids

When your healthcare provider talks about your cholesterol and lipid levels, they are usually referring to three types of lipoproteins found in the bloodstream (Janapala, 2021):

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol

LDL cholesterol is referred to as a type of “bad cholesterol” because elevated levels can lead to a build-up of dangerous plaques in your arteries. It is necessary, though, to transport cholesterol wherever it’s needed in your body. LDL is only “bad” when it’s too high (Janapala, 2021).

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol

HDL cholesterol is often called “good cholesterol” because it carries cholesterol back to the liver from elsewhere in the body to be removed. Unlike other types of cholesterol, you want to have higher HDL levels. Low HDL levels can be dangerous for your health (Janapala, 2021).

Very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol

VLDL is also often referred to as a type of “bad cholesterol” because it carries triglycerides. Triglycerides can cause heart disease if chronically elevated for extended periods (Janapala, 2021).

Measuring lipid levels

You can easily measure your cholesterol levels with a simple blood test called a lipid panel. You’ll usually need to fast for this test, which means you won’t eat or drink anything (except water) for eight hours before getting your blood drawn. Your triglyceride levels can be elevated after meals, so fasting before the test gives your healthcare provider a more accurate reading (Sundjaja, 2021).

There are some times when you don’t have to fast before a cholesterol test. Your healthcare provider should give you specific instructions when ordering the test (Sundjaja, 2021).

You’ll generally get your results back quickly, but the precise turnaround time will depend on the lab you use.

The current guidelines for cholesterol levels are (Lee, 2020):

  • Fasting triglyceride level:
    • Normal: less than 150 mg/dL 
    • Mild hypertriglyceridemia: 150 to 499 mg/dL
    • Moderate hypertriglyceridemia: 500 to 886 mg/dL 
    • Very high or severe hypertriglyceridemia: greater than 886 mg/dL
  • LDL level:
    • Optimal: less than 100 mg/ dL
    • Near optimal/above optimal:100 to 129 mg/dL
    • Borderline high: 130 to 159 mg/dL
    • High: 160 to 189 mg/dL
    • Very high: greater than 190 mg/dL 
  • HDL level:
    • Low: less than 40 mg/dL
    • High: greater than or equal to 60 mg/dL

Your healthcare provider will determine your risk of developing heart disease by factoring in your lipid profile, age, sex, total cholesterol levels, medical history, and family history (Lee, 2020).

Why are elevated lipids a problem?

High LDL cholesterol levels (also called hypercholesterolemia) and high triglyceride levels are problematic because most people won’t experience any adverse symptoms at first. You might think that you don’t need to worry about your cholesterol levels if you feel fine, but this isn’t true.

The complications from untreated lipid disorders can cause a higher risk of significant health problems, including the possibility of death. These potential complications include (Hill, 2021):

  • Atherosclerosis (hardening and plaque build-up in your artery walls)
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart attacks from blocked blood vessels
  • Stroke when plaque interrupts blood flow in the brain
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure

High cholesterol is often a lifelong condition. Fortunately, it’s usually easy to manage this condition through diet, lifestyle changes, and medications. Talk with your healthcare provider about what you can do to keep your cholesterol levels optimal (Hill, 2021).

Preventing and treating high cholesterol

The best way to avoid the health consequences of elevated lipid levels is to prevent them before they start. That’s not always possible, though, especially if your high cholesterol has a strong genetic component. It’s not too late if you already have elevated cholesterol levels. There are changes you can make to help get your cholesterol back into a healthy range.

Diet

The current dietary guidelines recommend limiting saturated fats to less than 10 percent of daily calories. If you have a condition predisposing you to heart disease, you should aim for less than five to six percent. You should also avoid trans fats, a type of fat usually found in heavily processed foods. These can have adverse effects on how your body processes lipids (Janapala, 2021).

Lifestyle

An unhealthy lifestyle can cause or worsen elevated cholesterol levels. You can decrease your risk of heart disease with these changes to your daily routine (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2021):

  • Exercise regularly
  • Quit smoking (or don’t start)
  • Prevent or reduce obesity
  • Reduce stress

Medications

Many people can control their cholesterol levels through diet and lifestyle alone. For others, especially when elevated lipid levels run in the family, medication might be needed. The most commonly prescribed class of medicines for lowering cholesterol levels is statins (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2021).

Work with your healthcare provider

If you’re concerned about your cholesterol levels or you’ve been diagnosed with elevated lipids, talk to your healthcare provider. They can ensure you receive the appropriate testing and monitoring. Your healthcare provider can also suggest ways to decrease your risk of developing heart disease and other health complications.

References

  1. Ahmed S, Shah P, Ahmed O. (2021). Biochemistry, lipids. [Updated 2021 May 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK525952/
  2. Craig M, Yarrarapu SNS, Dimri M. (2020). Biochemistry, cholesterol. [Updated 2020 Aug 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513326/
  3. Hill MF, Bordoni B. (2021). Hyperlipidemia. [Updated 2021 Feb 7]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559182/
  4. Janapala US, Reddivari AKR. (2021). Low cholesterol diet. [Updated 2021 May 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551722/
  5. Lee Y, Siddiqui WJ. (2020). Cholesterol levels. [Updated 2020 Jul 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542294/
  6. Sundjaja JH, Pandey S. (2021). Cholesterol screening. [Updated 2021 May 10]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560894/
  7. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2021). Cholesterol. MedlinePlus. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/cholesterol.html