What Are High Blood Cholesterol and Triglycerides?

Updated:Dec 8,2015

What is high blood cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like substance found in the bloodstream and in all your body’s cells. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs.

The saturated and trans fats you eat may raise your blood cholesterol level. Having too much cholesterol in your blood may lead to increased risk for heart disease and stroke.

What’s so bad about high blood cholesterol?

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is often called “the bad kind.” When you have too much LDL cholesterol in your blood, it can join with fats and other substances to build up in the inner walls of your arteries. The arteries can become clogged and narrow, and blood flow is reduced. If this buildup of plaque ruptures, a blood clot may form at this location or a piece may break off and travel in the bloodstream.  If a blood clot blocks the blood flow to your heart, it causes a heart attack. If a blood clot blocks an artery leading to or in the brain, a stroke results.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is called the “good kind”. It carries harmful cholesterol away from the arteries and helps protect you from heart attack and stroke. It’s better to have a lot of HDL cholesterol in your blood.

How can I control my cholesterol?

  • Cut down on foods high in saturated and trans fats. These include fatty meats, organ meats such as liver, shellfish, cheese, whole-milk dairy products, and solid fats such as butter. Aim for 5-6% of your total calories or less from saturated fats.
  • Do an average of 40 minutes of moderate- to vigorous- intensity aerobic activity 3 or 4 times per week.
  • Include a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet. Select low-fat dairy products and eat poultry, fish, and nuts. Limit sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, sodium, and red meats. 
  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight.  If you are overweight or obese, losing weight can help improve  your lipid profile.
  • If you can’t improve your cholesterol through lifestyle changes alone, ask your doctor about medicines that can help.

What are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your body. They come from food, and your body also makes them. High levels of blood triglycerides are often found in people who have high cholesterol levels, heart problems, are overweight or have diabetes.

What about fats?

There are different kinds of fats in the foods we eat.

Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol, so too much is not good for you. Aim for a diet that has 5-6% or less of calories from saturated fats. Animal fats like lard and meat fat, and some tropical oils like coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil contain saturated fats.

Trans fat comes from adding hydrogen to vegetable oils and tends to raise blood cholesterol. It’s used in commercial baked goods and for cooking in many restaurants and fast-food chains. It’s also found naturally in milk and beef. Reduce the amount of trans fat in your diet by limiting foods with “hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients list.

Polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils and fish oils. These can improve blood cholesterol when eaten as part of a healthy diet and used to replace saturated or trans fats.

Monounsaturated fats are found in olive, canola, peanut, sunflower and safflower oils. As part of a healthy diet, they may help improve blood cholesterol.

How can I learn more?
  1. Call 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721), or visit heart.org to learn more about heart disease and stroke.
  2. Sign up to get Heart Insight, a free magazine for heart patients and their families, at heartinsight.org.
  3. Connect with others sharing similar journeys with heart disease and stroke by joining our Support Network at heart.org/supportnetwork.
We have many other fact sheets to help you make healthier choices to reduce your risk, manage disease or care for a loved one. Visit heart.org/answersbyheart to learn more.

Do you have questions or comments for the doctor or nurse?

Take a few minutes to write your questions for the next time you see your healthcare provider.
For example:

Will I need cholesterol-lowering medicine?

How does exercise affect my levels?

©2015, American Heart Association

Multi-language Fact Sheet Topics

Heart-related Conditions
What is Angina?
What is an Arrhythmia?
What Is Atrial Fibrillation?
What Do My Cholesterol Levels Mean?
How Can I Improve My Cholesterol?
What Are High Blood Cholesterol and Triglycerides?
What Is High Blood Pressure?
How Can I Reduce High Blood Pressure?
High Blood Pressure and Stroke
What Is Diabetes and How Can I Manage It?
How Can I Live With Heart Failure?
What Is Heart Failure?
What Is a Heart Attack?
How Will I Recover From My Heart Attack?
What Are the Warning Signs of Heart Attack?
What Are Heart Disease and Stroke?
What is Metabolic Syndrome?
What is Peripheral Artery Disease?

Stroke, Recovery and Caregiving
Hemorrhagic Stroke
Ischemic Stroke
Stroke, TIA and Warning Signs
What Are the Warning Signs of Stroke?
Stroke Risk Factors
Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Stroke
Stroke Diagnosis
Complications After Stroke
Changes Caused by Stroke
Emotional Changes After Stroke
Feeling Tired After a Stroke
Stroke and Aphasia
Stroke and Rehabilitation
Stroke Family Caregivers
How Should I Care for Myself as a Caregiver?

Treatment, Tests and Procedures
What is Cholesterol-Lowering Medicine?
What is High Blood Pressure Medicine?
What Are Anticoagulants and Antiplatelet Agents?
How Do I Manage My Medicines?
What Is an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator?
What Is a Pacemaker?
What Is Coronary Angioplasty?
What is a Stent?
What is Coronary Bypass Surgery?
What is a Coronary Angiogram?
How Can I Recover From Heart Surgery?
What is Carotid Endarterectomy?

Healthy Lifestyle and Risk Reduction
How Can I Manage My Weight?
How Can Physical Activity Become a Way of Life?
Why Should I Be Physically Active?
How Do I Follow a Healthy Diet?
How Can I Cook Healthfully?
Why Should I Limit Sodium?
How Do I Understand "Nutrition Facts" Labels?
How Can I Quit Smoking?
How Can I Manage Stress?
How Can I Make My Lifestyle Healthier?
How Can I Monitor My Cholesterol, Blood Pressure and Weight?