If you can recite the batting order of the Red Sox or the price of the latest handbag from your favorite designer, then you should also know your cholesterol levels and their respective meanings. I took an informal, nonscientific survey of my closest friends, and only one person had any real understanding of cholesterol, how to interpret the results or its link to coronary artery disease.

If you can recite the batting order of the Red Sox or the price of the latest handbag from your favorite designer, then you should also know your cholesterol levels and their respective meanings. I took an informal, nonscientific survey of my closest friends, and only one person had any real understanding of cholesterol, how to interpret the results or its link to coronary artery disease (CAD).


Most knew that their overall level should be less than 200, but beyond that, people were stumped. I don’t think my friends are unique in their lack of knowledge. A 2008 global study found unexpectedly and astoundingly poor understanding of lipid profiles.


Next time you visit your physician, don’t leave without a breakdown of your blood lipid profile. This includes the big four: your total cholesterol, HDL, LDL and triglycerides. These numbers are the principal reflection of the amount of fatty materials in your body and are closely linked to the likelihood that you will develop heart disease.


1. Dietary cholesterol (the kind you eat) is found in animal-based foods like meat, eggs and dairy, and the liver also constantly cranks it out (the kind you make systemically). Problems arise when you are genetically predisposed to making too much cholesterol, are sedentary and/or consume a diet high in cholesterol, saturated and trans fats.


Too much cholesterol can accumulate along the walls of your arteries. These hardened walls impede blood flow and increase your blood pressure, taxing your system. Furthermore, fatty plaques can amass. This plaque can dislodge, resulting in a blood clot. Foods high in saturated and trans fat can be just as damaging, if not more, than dietary cholesterol. For example, a bowl of ice cream or a brownie can be much bigger offenders, than, say, an egg. Remember, saturated and trans fats should play a very small role in your diet, if at all.


2. HDL is often referred to as happy cholesterol because it has a protective effect that is inversely associated with heart disease. Think of HDL as a little vehicle that returns cholesterol to the liver, where it is recycled or excreted, reducing the risk of these potentially deadly plaques. HDL possesses anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, too. One excellent way of increasing your HDL is through exercise.


Remember, with HDL, the higher the better. More than 60 is optimal.


3. LDL is sometimes referred to as bad cholesterol. Too much LDL can result in a flat tire at best, or worse, a head-on collision. If it is slightly elevated, making dietary and lifestyle modifications may help, but significantly high levels require medication. LDL is a better indicator of the risk of coronary artery disease than your total cholesterol number.


LDL below 100 is optimal.


4. Triglycerides, the chief form of fat storage in the body, are pulled out of circulation between meals and used for energy. One way to reduce your TGs is to skip that after-work glass of wine; even small amounts of alcohol can greatly increase your TG levels. TG should be less than 150.


Remember, your health is in your own hands. I hope you will practice my two favorite E’s: exercise and eating well.


Patriot Ledger contributor Sarah Slattery is a certified personal trainer, a model and a health and fitness professional. She holds a master’s degree in physiology from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Boston College.