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Understanding your cholesterol numbers..


What is a high cholesterol number?

Healthy Tips

Most of us know that to keep our hearts happy, it’s important to keep our blood cholesterol levels healthy. But what is a high cholesterol number? And, what should our cholesterol levels be?

We at Benecol® want to clear up any confusion over what a high cholesterol number really mean, helping you take steps to look after your cholesterol levels and avoid health problems later on in life.

1. Do you know your cholesterol numbers?

If not, you’re far from alone. 4 out of 10 people in England are living with high cholesterol [1], but as there are no obvious signs or symptoms, many of us don’t even realise it. No matter how fit and healthy you feel, it’s a good idea to find out your cholesterol numbers; when too much cholesterol circulates in your blood, your risk of coronary heart diseases, such as heart attack and stroke can increase [2]. Measuring your blood cholesterol is a great first step in becoming heart healthier.

The good news is that getting your cholesterol checked is easy, and involves a simple blood test – carried out by your GP, practice nurse or pharmacist. You can get your results within a few minutes and once you know your cholesterol numbers, you can take action to lower your cholesterol levels, or keep them in the healthy range. So, what are you waiting for – now is the time to crunch those cholesterol numbers…

2. What is a high cholesterol number?

In the UK, cholesterol levels are measured in units called millimoles per litre of blood (mmol/L). As a general guide, it’s recommended that healthy adults should have a total cholesterol level of below 5 mmol/L. So, anything above 5 is considered high!

When you get the results of your blood test, you may only be given the number for total cholesterol (TC) – or in other words, the total amount of cholesterol in your blood, but it’s important to remember that it’s not all about your total cholesterol number. Your results will also include different types of cholesterol – and it’s the balance between these different types of cholesterol that’s also important for your heart health, because they do different things. There are two main types:

Non-HDL – the ‘bad’ types of cholesterol

Your non-HDL (non-high density lipoproteins) number is your total cholesterol number minus your ‘good’ HDL cholesterol number. So, basically all thebad’ cholesterols in your blood added together, including harmful LDL (low-density lipoprotein). They are called ‘bad’ cholesterols because when there is too much of them, they can slowly build up inside the walls of the arteries, making them narrower, which increases the risk of coronary heart diseases such as heart attack or stroke.

 What’s a good number for your ‘bad’ LDL and non-HDL cholesterols?

Ideally they should be as low as possible:

  • LDL – 3 mmol/L or less for healthy adults.
  • Non-HDL – 4 mmol/L or less for healthy adults.

HDL – the  ‘good’ type of cholesterol

HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is known as ‘good’ cholesterol. It’s ‘good’ because it takes excess cholesterol from the bloodstream and returns it to the liver, where it is broken down and passed out of the body.

Now is the time to take action…

Don’t worry if any your cholesterol test numbers are outside the normal range, high cholesterol is something we can and should do something about. A healthcare professional will advise on next steps, based on your overall cholesterol results. This may include offering you help and advice on making healthy changes to your diet and lifestyle, as well as possibly prescribing medication to lower your cholesterol.

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3. What’s a good number for your ‘good’ HDL cholesterol?

A high ‘good’ HDL cholesterol number can help keep your ‘bad’ LDL and non-HDL cholesterols in check, so ideally this figure should be:

  • above 1.2 mmol/L for a woman
  • above 1.0 mmo/L for a man

Generally speaking, for a healthy, happy heart the goal is to have LOWER LDL and non-HDL numbers and a HIGHER HDL number.

So, even if you have a high total cholesterol test number, it’s possible to have a healthy balance of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ types of cholesterol. With this in mind, always ask for a full breakdown of your cholesterol numbers – or at the very least your total and HDL cholesterol results, so you can work out your non-HDL cholesterol and TC: HDL ratio. And, to prevent any unnecessary worry or misunderstandings, get a healthcare professional to properly explain your cholesterol results to you [3].

Cholesterol Numbers, Simplified

Here’s a roundup of the numbers to aim for….

Total cholesterol Below 5 mmol/l
Non-HDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol Below 4 mmol/l
LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol Below 3
HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol Above 1 for men and 1.2 for women
TC: HDL ratio The lower the better – above 6 is considered high

It’s important to realize these numbers are only a guide for ideal cholesterol levels for healthy adults living in the UK. Your doctor or practice nurse may recommend different numbers for you, depending on other risk factors for coronary heart disease you have such as smoking or being overweight, and other medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes.

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  1. Health Survey for England 2019 Adults’ health. Available at Accessed February 2022.
  2. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Cardiovascular disease: risk assessment and reduction, including lipid modification. Updated Sept 2016. Available at Accessed February 2022.
  3. Heart UK. Understanding your cholesterol test results. Available at Accessed February 2022.