Skip to Main Content

Welcome to

Together is a new resource for anyone affected by pediatric cancer - patients and their parents, family members, and friends.

Learn More


What is cholesterol? 

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance made by the liver. It is also in foods that come from animals, like meat, dairy, eggs, and cheese. The body needs some cholesterol to make cell membranes, hormones, and vitamin D. Having too much cholesterol in your blood can cause your blood vessels to become blocked and lead to health problems, like heart attack and stroke.  

Types of cholesterol 

Cholesterol moves through your body as particles called lipoproteins. The two main kinds of lipoprotein particles are low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).  

  • LDL cholesterol is the bad cholesterol that blocks your arteries. 
  • HDL cholesterol is the good cholesterol. It helps keep LDL levels low by carrying cholesterol away from the arteries.  
  • Triglycerides are another type of fat in the body. If you eat more calories than you need, the calories your body does not use are stored as triglycerides in fat cells. Triglycerides can also come from foods that you eat.  

High LDL (bad) cholesterol and low HDL (good) cholesterol along with high triglycerides increase your risk for heart attack and stroke. Lifestyle changes including physical activity, healthy eating, and not smoking can help you manage your cholesterol. Some people may also need cholesterol-lowering medicines.   

Healthy blood cholesterol levels

A lab test can measure the level of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood. This is sometimes called a lipid profile or lipid panel.  

In general, aim for these numbers: 

  • Total cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL 
  • HDL (good cholesterol): More than 40 mg/dL 
  • LDL (bad cholesterol): Less than 100 mg/dL 
  • Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL 

Physical activity to improve cholesterol levels 

Exercise will lower total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL (bad cholesterol) while increasing HDL (good cholesterol). Try to be active for at least 30 minutes a day. Aim for 60 minutes per day if you are trying to lose weight. Choose an activity that you enjoy and can do for 10 minutes several times per day. For example, take three 10-minute brisk walks per day to add up to 30 minutes. 

Healthy eating to improve cholesterol levels 

Healthy diet changes can help you manage cholesterol levels. These include: 

  • Limit saturated fats and trans fats. These fats are found in foods such as pre-packaged snack foods, commercially baked goods, fried foods, butter, stick margarine, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and shortening.   
  • Add Omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in canola oil, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, and cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon or tuna.  
  • Add fiber to your diet. Aim for 20 to 30 grams (g) of fiber per day by increasing intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Examples of whole grains are whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, and brown rice.  
  • Eat more plant-based foods instead of animal-based foods. Fiber found in vegetables, beans, grains, and nuts will help keep cholesterol levels in a normal range.  
  • Read food packaging and labels. Look for these key terms: 
    • Can help lower cholesterol 
    • Low fat 
    • Low in saturated fat  
    • High in fiber  
  • Bake, grill, broil, or steam foods instead of frying to lower the amount of fat. 
  • Switch from whole milk and whole fat dairy products to 2% or skim milk and low-fat dairy products. 

Foods to eat and foods to avoid for better cholesterol  

Food group  Foods to eat Foods to avoid or limit
Protein  Lean meats such as turkey, chicken, pork, and lean cuts of beef 
Egg whites 
Egg substitute 
Soy or tofu 
High-fat cuts of beef or pork 
Fried meats or fish 
Hot dogs, cold cuts, lunch meat 
Egg yolks 
Grains  Brown rice 
Whole grain bread, cereal, or pasta 
Air popped popcorn 
White rice  
White or processed bread, cereal, or pasta 
Popcorn cooked in butter 
Fried or high-fat baked goods 
Vegetables  Fresh, frozen, or low-sodium or rinsed canned vegetables  Fried vegetables 
Vegetables with added fat such as butter, cream, or gravy 
Fruit  Canned, fresh, dried, or frozen fruit (without added sugar)  Desserts or fried foods with fruit filling 
Fruits with added fat or sugar 
Fats  Canola, corn, or olive oil 
Vegetable oil spreads Low-fat mayonnaise 
Low-fat salad dressing 
Butter, lard, shortening, or margarine 
Salad dressing 
Dairy  Skim or 1% milk 
Low-fat cheese 
Low-fat yogurt 
Low-fat frozen yogurt 
Whole fat milk 
Whole fat cheese 
Whole fat yogurt  
Cream or half and half 
Ice cream 
Sour cream 

To help lower your risk for heart disease and stroke, eat a healthy diet including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Limit foods and drinks with added sugars, saturated fat, or trans fat. Watch the salt in your diet and try to keep sodium to less than 2300 milligrams (mg) per day. 

Key Points

  • Cholesterol is made in the liver and found in meat, dairy, eggs, and cheese. 
  • Types of cholesterol include HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (bad cholesterol). 
  • Low HDL, high LDL, and high triglycerides can lead to health problems including heart attack and stroke. 
  • Healthy eating and physical activity can improve cholesterol.

Find more information on cholesterol 

Reviewed: September 2022