What Is the Difference Between Good and Bad Cholesterol Exactly?

Heather Campbell
 min read

What is the difference between good and bad cholesterol?

What Is the Difference Between Good and Bad Cholesterol Exactly?What about HDL versus LDL cholesterol and the other blood fats or triglycerides?

As a general rule, the terms HDL (high density lipoportein) and LDL (low density lipoprotein) refer to the transport method of cholesterol and its ultimate function in our body. They are responsible for its ultimate destination, and that’s why they are called good (HDL) or bad (LDL) cholesterol.

These terms are juggled to indicate that there would be negative and positive versions. But is that picture accurate?

Continue reading and find out all about good and bad cholesterol below!

Difference between good and bad cholesterol: Introduction

In essence, cholesterol is just one substance with the same chemical structure.

Regardless of whether it is called LDL or HDL, it is essentially the same substance.

HDL and LDL are therefore terms that refer to  its transport and function in our body.

As it is a fat, and fats cannot dissolve in water, it must be bound or packaged in a transport container (lipoprotein) to be transported in the blood.

Just as goods today are transported by road from point A to point B in a truck, the same happens with cholesterol in our bodies.

Lipoproteins are responsible for the transport of cholesterol in the body

In other words, cholesterol is packed into a tiny container to be transported through the blood.

The scientific term for this container is a lipoprotein.

These are highly complex but ingenious transport systems that contain it along with a few other fats. At the same time, they are water-soluble.

This also allows them to be dissolved in the blood and transport it to all parts of the body.

As the name suggests, these mini-containers or lipoproteins contain fats (lipo) and specific proteins.

Proteins determine whether cholesterol is good or bad

The proteins in this shipping container act as address labels.

Indeed, they contain a code that allows the lipoproteins to know exactly where to deliver their load.

And it is those proteins that determine where the container is transported:

  • In the case of HDL, the excess is carried away from the tissues to the liver to provide protection against cardiovascular disease.
  • But if that container makes the opposite movement and is transported from the liver to the tissues where the it can then precipitate in the blood vessels, that’s LDL or bad cholesterol.

LDL cholesterol: Bad

Specific lipoproteins, such as the low-density lipoprotein, better known by its abbreviation “LDL,” are given an address label to carry cholesterol from the liver to various places in the body.

The cholesterol packed into these LDL containers is responsible for its bad reputation.

Tip: It is this LDL cholesterol we speak of when talking about lowering our high cholesterol, as discussed in our other article How to Treat High Cholesterol: Frequently Asked Questions

Unfortunately, for most of us, about 70-75% is packed into unfavorable LDL containers.

LDL transport departs from the liver to the tissues, including the blood vessels where excess cholesterol tends to accumulate in the artery wall to eventually cause arteriosclerosis.

Related: Arteriosclerosis is also known as artery blockage or atherosclerosis, find out more about this condition and how to prevent it in our other article Artery Blockage Consequences and How to Prevent Atherosclerosis

Thus, these LDL lipoproteins are at the root of later cardiovascular problems, strokes, infarctions, etc and is popularly called “bad” for convenience.

But remember that cholesterol in itself is not necessarily bad.

On the other hand, what is bad is its combination , the transport medium in which it is packed, and the address label (protein) that carries LDL from the liver to the tissues and arteries.

HDL cholesterol: Good

With HDL, it is simply in another transporter container or lipoprotein, in the HDL or high-density lipoprotein.

This HDL has a different task and a different address label/protein than the LDL particles.

The beneficial HDL container can best be compared to a garbage cart that picks up excess cholesterol in our bodies and disposes of it properly.

In other words, HDL possesses the favorable property of absorbing and binding to itself the cholesterol that might accumulate in the artery walls.

So in this way, it works against arteriosclerosis.

Through the bloodstream, the absorbed cholesterol can thus be transported back to the liver for recycling or removed from the body through the bile.

In other words, HDL protects the body from excess.

What foods contain cholesterol?

Plant foods do not provide it per se but these plant products do contain cholesterol-like substances called plant phytosterols and stanols, but they are not or barely absorbed by humans, although closely related from a chemical perspective.

Plant-based foods play an essential role

Yet plant-based foods can play an important role.

Indeed, plant sterols have the additional potentially beneficial property of binding in our intestines at those sites (receptor sites) where cholesterol must also bind to be absorbed from our diet.

This is because they are very similar to cholesterol, enough to bind at the receptor sites but different enough to be almost not absorbed.

Thus, by taking plant sterols, we make it more difficult for our bodies to absorb it.

Put another way, the non-absorbable plant sterols, which are included in some margarines, block the absorption channels for cholesterol, which results in lower levels.

Difference between good and bad cholesterol: Conclusion

Cholesterol is a fat, and since fat cannot dissolve in water, it must be packed in a transport container or so-called lipoprotein to be transported in our blood.

The proteins in this shipping container act as address labels. There are 2 possibilities in terms of transport destination:

  • The container is transported from the liver to the tissues, where it can precipitate in the blood vessels. That’s the LDL or bad cholesterol.
  • Or the excess cholesterol is drained from the tissues to the liver. That’s HDL and it protects against harmful and life-threatening cardiovascular diseases.

Unfortunately, for most of us, about 70-75% is packed into the unfavorable LDL containers.

Not all foods are rich in cholesterol.  It is mainly present in foods high in animal fat, such as meat, cheese, whole-milk products, the yolks of eggs, fish, etc.

A blood draw is required on an empty stomach to measure your cholesterol level. In other words, drawing blood just after a meal may cause a miscalculation of LDL.

Don’t get tested if you are sick (even with a simple cold or other infection) since that too can affect the result of the test.

About Heather Campbell

As a nutritionist, my field of specialization is science-based nutritional advice but more importantly, it is my goal to share capturing and inspiring stories, examples and solutions which can help plus-size individuals overcome their specific difficulties. Read More