Before you decide what to do about your cholesterol, you need to know how much cholesterol you actually have. So get up, march over to your doctor’s office, and hold out your arm so your doctor can stick a hollow needle into the vein in the crook of your elbow and draw about 20 milliliters (ml) of bright, red blood. Then when you go home, the little glass tube holding your blood goes off to a medical laboratory where a technician counts the cholesterol particles. The results you get back look like this: 225 mg/dL. Translation: You have 225 milligrams of total cholesterol in every decilitre (1⁄10 liter) of blood.
But these numbers don’t paint the whole picture. The figures for your low density lipoproteins (VLDLs, IDLs, LDLs) and high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) are still missing. Lipoproteins are fat-and-protein particles that carry cholesterol into your arteries (LDLs) or out of your body (HDLs), which is why HDLs are “good” and some of the LDLs are “bad.”
The problem with simple finger-stick tests such as those found in cholesterol home-testing kits is that they only measure total cholesterol levels — no HDLs and no LDLs. An incomplete result (total cholesterol alone) can scare you to death if it shows you have high total cholesterol without letting you know that you — lucky girl! lucky boy! — also have high HDLs. The fingerstick test can also provide false reassurance if it shows a low total cholesterol level without letting you know that your LDLs are also very low.
Now that you know all this and have an accurate, complete doctor’s report in hand, what do the results say about you? How can you tell if the numbers are high, low, or in-between?