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Which Cholesterol Is The “Good” Cholesterol?

Dear A Moment of Science, I try to eat a healthful diet, but I have a hard time remembering which cholesterol is the "good" cholesterol: LDL or HDL.

cholesterol emboli

Photo: Boonyarit Cheunsuchon (Flickr)

Here is a close up of a cholesterol emboli.

Dear A Moment of Science,

I try to eat a healthful diet, but I have a hard time remembering which cholesterol is the “good” cholesterol: LDL or HDL. Please enlighten me. Signed: Trying to Eat Right.

Well, Trying, so called good cholesterol is HDL, which stands for high density lipoprotein. That’s in contrast to LDL cholesterol, otherwise known as low density lipoprotein. What’s allegedly good about HDL is that it somehow lowers the risk for having a heart attack.

What Leads To Heart Health?

But according to a new study, high levels of HDL may not actually cause heart health. Losing weight, quitting smoking and getting more exercise boost HDL. So it’s possible that those things, and perhaps other healthy behaviors, are what lower the risk for heart attack. And that having more HDL is just a side product.

So why have scientists thought that having more HDL is good for heart health?

Heart Attack Risk

Because it appeared that high levels of HDL predicted a low risk of heart attack. There’s lots of evidence that having too much LDL the bad type of cholesterol does in fact raise your risk for having a heart attack. And lots of evidence seemed to suggest that the opposite was true for good cholesterol. But when scientists looked at data from several thousand people who have naturally high HDL cholesterol levels, they found no special protection against heart disease.

So, to put a fine point on it, LDL cholesterol is still bad for you, but HDL alone may not be as beneficial as once thought.

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