LDL vs HDL Cholesterol – What’s the Difference?

When it comes to cholesterol, you’ve probably heard the terms LDL and HDL cholesterol being thrown around. But what are they, and is one better than the other?

Firstly, what is Cholesterol?

Before we jump ahead and explain LDL vs HDL cholesterol, let’s start with the basics of cholesterol.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced mainly in the liver and is also found in some animal foods such as meat, eggs, and poultry (1). While it often gets a bad rap, cholesterol is an essential fat vital to the human body, as it’s used to create certain hormones and vitamin D to absorb calcium, for building and repairing cells, and also helps us to digest our food (1-2).

Cholesterol travels throughout the blood in the form of lipoproteins – tiny molecules of fat that are wrapped in protein (2).

There are two major types of cholesterol:

  • LDL (Low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol – aka ‘bad’ or ‘lousy’ cholesterol
  • HDL (High-density lipoprotein) cholesterol – aka ‘good’ or ‘helpful’ cholesterol

While the body needs small amounts to function, too much cholesterol – in particular, LDL cholesterol – can increase the risk of heart disease (1-2).

Let’s take a closer look at LDL vs HDL cholesterol, their key differences, and how they impact heart health.

What is LDL cholesterol?

LDL cholesterol makes up the majority of cholesterol and is often referred to as ‘bad’ or ‘lousy’ cholesterol. That’s because it travels from the liver and deposits on artery walls, which over time can lead to a buildup of plaque (2,3). This process is known as atherosclerosis and is the leading cause of Coronary Heart Disease. Having high levels of LDL cholesterol increases the likelihood of plaque buildup on the artery walls and can pose a risk to your heart health in several ways:

  • It can cause the narrowing of the arteries, reducing blood flow and oxygen to major organs and increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke
  • If the plaque ruptures or breaks away from the artery wall, it can create blood clots which can also lead to a heart attack or a stroke (2,3)

Therefore, when it comes to LDL cholesterol, the lower the levels in your blood, the better it is for your heart health.

What is HDL cholesterol?

On the other hand, HDL cholesterol is referred to as ‘good’ or ‘helpful’ cholesterol. That’s because it carries LDL cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it’s broken down and excreted from the body (1-4). Doing this helps to prevent the build-up of LDL cholesterol in the artery walls and reduces the risk of a heart attack or a stroke.

Therefore, the higher the level of HDL cholesterol in the blood, the lower the risk of heart disease or stroke (1-4).

LDL vs HDL cholesterol – key differences

In summary, the key differences between LDL and HDL cholesterol are:

  • LDL is considered ‘bad’ or lousy whereas HDL is considered ‘good’ or ‘helpful’
  • LDL makes up most of the cholesterol in the blood, whereas HDL only accounts for about one-third to one-fourth of cholesterol in the blood
  • LDL travels from the liver and deposits on artery walls, whereas HDL carries it back to the liver to be excreted from the body
  • LDL cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease, whereas LDL lowers the risk

What about triglycerides?

Triglycerides are the most common type of fat that’s found in the blood. If we consume more kilojoules (kJ) than we need from the food we eat throughout the day, it’s converted into triglycerides in the liver and stored in fat cells for later use (4,5).

When you see a doctor to have your cholesterol checked, your triglyceride levels will also likely be measured alongside LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol. If high triglycerides are combined with high LDL cholesterol and/or low HDL cholesterol, your risk of heart disease increases (4).

What cholesterol levels should I aim for?

It’s important to visit your Doctor for regular checkups to assess your cholesterol levels. While your Doctor will help interpret your results and guide you on what they should be based on your family history and personal risk, here are general target recommendations (5):

Measure  Target range
Total Cholesterol <4.0mmol/L (Individuals at high risk)

<5.5mmol/L (General population)

LDL cholesterol <1.8mmol/L (Individuals at high risk)

<2.0mmol/L (General population)

HDL cholesterol >1.0mmol/L
Triglycerides <2.0mmol/L

How can I lower my cholesterol?

Lowering cholesterol levels, particularly LDL cholesterol vs HDL cholesterol can lower the risk of your heart disease. Here are the ways you can lower your cholesterol with diet and lifestyle changes:

  • Increase movement in ways you enjoy
  • Consume a balanced, heart-healthy diet that:
  • Contains a variety of foods across the 5 core food groups e.g. fruit, vegetables and legumes, whole grains, lean proteins, and reduced-fat dairy
  • Rich in healthy fats, and limits saturated and trans fats
  • High in fibre, particularly soluble fibre
  • Maintain a healthy fat mass

  • Eat plant sterol-enriched foods, or take a plant sterol supplement
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Reduce stress levels
  • Quit smoking
  • See your GP for regular heart health check-ups, and to discuss whether medication may be needed

To learn more about how to lower cholesterol, read our blog “The ultimate guide on how to lower cholesterol

The Take Home Message

While cholesterol is essential for many functions in our bodies, too much can increase our risk of heart disease. Lowering LDL vs HDL cholesterol is important to reduce the risk of plaque buildup in the arteries, which can be done with simple lifestyle and diet changes.

If you’re wanting to lower your cholesterol levels and improve your heart health, then personalised support may be a great option for you. At Heart Smart Australia, we offer individualised programs that include weekly or fortnightly calls with an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Health Coach, access to educational webinars, resources, and more to help improve your heart health and well-being. If you’re interested to gain insights into the experiences of our valued clients, we encourage you to read Heart Smart Australia reviews.

To learn more about what our programs can offer you, book your free assessment to speak to one of our friendly staff today.

How we reviewed this article:

Heart Smart Australia utilises a variety of credible and reliable sources to support and provide valuable insights into the topic being discussed. From academic journals to government reports, each reference has been carefully selected to add depth and richness of our articles.

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