What is LDL?

LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein. It’s a type of lipoprotein found in your blood.

Lipoproteins are particles made of lipids (fats) and proteins that carry fats through your bloodstream. Fats, because of their structure, can’t move through your blood on their own. So, lipoproteins serve as vehicles that carry fats to various cells in your body. LDL particles contain a large amount of cholesterol and a smaller amount of proteins.

What is LDL cholesterol?

Most people use “LDL” and “LDL cholesterol” interchangeably. LDL cholesterol has a reputation for being the “bad cholesterol.” But that’s only part of the story. LDL cholesterol itself isn’t bad. That’s because cholesterol performs important functions in your body. However, when you have too much LDL cholesterol, that’s when you can run into problems.

Excess LDL cholesterol contributes to plaque buildup (atherosclerosis) in your arteries. This plaque buildup may lead to:

  • Coronary artery disease.
  • Cerebrovascular disease.
  • Peripheral artery disease.
  • Aortic aneurysm.

This is why healthcare providers encourage you to have a healthy level of LDL cholesterol.

What is the LDL cholesterol normal range?

Most adults should keep their LDL below 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). If you have a history of atherosclerosis, your LDL should be below 70 mg/dL.

What is a bad level for LDL?

An LDL level above 100 mg/dL raises your risk of cardiovascular disease. Healthcare providers use the following categories to describe your LDL cholesterol level:

  • Normal: Below 100 mg/dL.
  • Near optimal: 100 – 129 mg/dL.
  • Borderline high: 130 – 159 mg/dL.
  • High: >160 mg/dL.

Healthcare providers check your cholesterol levels through a simple blood test called a lipid panel. When you receive your results, it’s important to talk to your provider about what your cholesterol numbers mean. These include both your LDL and your HDL cholesterol. HDL is the “good cholesterol” that helps remove extra cholesterol from your blood.

Generally, healthcare providers encourage higher HDL cholesterol levels (ideally above 60) and lower LDL cholesterol levels to reduce your cardiovascular disease risk. If your LDL is too high and your HDL is too low, your provider may recommend lifestyle changes and/or medications to get your cholesterol numbers into the healthy range.

What causes high LDL cholesterol?

Many factors can raise your LDL level. The factors you have some control over include:

  • What you eat. Foods like fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, bakery and fast foods are harmful for your cholesterol levels. That’s because they contain high amounts of saturated fat and, in some cases, trans fat. These two types of fat raise your LDL cholesterol.
  • Your body weight. Having overweight/obesity can raise your LDL cholesterol.
  • Smoking or using tobacco products. Tobacco use (including smokeless tobacco and vaping) lowers your HDL level. You need a healthy amount of HDL cholesterol to get rid of extra LDL cholesterol from your blood. So, by reducing your HDL level, tobacco use leads to a raised LDL level.

Factors you can’t control include:

  • Age. As you get older, your cholesterol levels naturally go up.
  • Sex assigned at birth. People assigned female at birth (AFAB) typically have higher LDL levels after menopause.
  • Your genes. If your close biological family members have high cholesterol, you may face a higher risk, too.

What foods cause high LDL cholesterol?

Foods that contain high amounts of saturated fat are the biggest culprits in raising your LDL cholesterol. Such foods include:

  • Bakery items, like doughnuts, cookies and cake.
  • Full-fat dairy products, like whole milk, cheese and butter.
  • Red meats, like steak, ribs, pork chops and ground beef.
  • Processed meats, like bacon, hot dogs and sausage.
  • Fried foods, like French fries and fried chicken.