What are cholesterol levels and why are they important?

Cholesterol is a type of blood fat which is produced in the liver. If you have too much cholesterol in your blood, your arteries can become clogged which over time can lead to serious health problems such as strokes or a heart attack. However, to stay healthy we do need cholesterol in our blood. Cholesterol is in every cell in our bodies and is important for our brains, nerves and skin. There are different types of Cholesterol within the body but the main two are commonly referred to as the bad cholesterol which is LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) and the good cholesterol which is HDL (High Density Lipoprotein). LDL is the most well known in the group of bad fats in the body often referred to as non-HDL Cholesterol. Due to genetics women naturally have higher good cholesterol levels (HDL) than men and should aim for an HDL cholesterol level above 1.2mmol/L. Men should aim for above 1mmol/L.

In This Section

Video support

This animation video from the British Heart Foundation helps to explain what high cholesterol means, how it is caused and how it can increase the risk of developing heart and circulatory disease.

What is a healthy cholesterol level?

Your cholesterol level is a guide to help your GP determine your risk of developing heart and circulatory disease and there is no specific target level. Your overall risk is increased if, along with a high cholesterol reading, you also have any of the other risk factors such as:

  • smoking
  • high blood pressure
  • being physically inactive
  • being overweight
  • having diabetes
  • family history of premature coronary heart disease
  • being of South Asian origin

What conditions are related to high cholesterol and blood fats?

Too much cholesterol in your blood can cause a build-up of fatty areas known as plaques. In time this will cause the arteries to stiffen and get narrower through a process called atherosclerosis. When the arteries get narrower it is harder to pump blood around the body which in turn will weaken the heart. This can then lead to coronary heart disease, stroke, angina, heart attacks, mini strokes, peripheral arterial disease, vascular dementia or heart failure.

There are also several other conditions that are related to high cholesterol and blood fats; see for more information.

What causes high Cholesterol?

High Cholesterol can be caused by a diet which is high in saturated fats. It can also be caused by an inactive lifestyle. If you are not active enough the fats aren’t used up for energy.

There are also genetic conditions that result in the fats not being processed in the usual way.

How to test your Cholesterol

There are usually no symptoms for high cholesterol. High cholesterol can be caused by your lifestyle but it can also be genetic. So even with a healthy lifestyle you may find you have high cholesterol.

Word from our GP

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Things to remember

To lower your cholesterol:

  • Eat less fatty foods such as meat pies, sausages and fatty meat, butter, lard, cream and hard cheese (like cheddar), cakes and biscuits, foods that contain coconut oil or palm oil.
  • Eat more oily fish, brown rice, bread, pasta, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables
  • Exercise more – 150mins of exercise a week
  • Stop smoking
  • Cut down on alcohol