Whenever you hear someone talk about cholesterol, it's always about the "good" high density lipoprotein (HDL) and the "bad" low density lipoprotein (LDL) types. But there's much more to cholesterol than just two simple numbers, researchers say.
While HDL and LDL are still lipids that your health professional will continue to monitor, scientists now understand that those two major lipoprotein measurements can be broken down into many smaller measurements. And it's those subgroups that now provide a far more accurate picture of your cardiovascular disease risk.
You probably already know that it's good to have high levels of HDL cholesterol in your blood, because it helps transport LDL cholesterol out of your body. But you probably don't know that 14 different subgroups of HDL have been identified with names like HDL 2a, HDL 2b, HDL 3a, and so on.
Those with a "3" in their name are very small particles, while those with a "2" are larger and full of cholesterol. These larger ones, especially the 2b, are intriguing because they appear to be responsible for ridding your body of 80 percent of its LDL cholesterol. As yet there are no set guidelines for ideal levels of HDL 2b, however, studies suggest there are cardiovascular benefits when blood levels of HDL 2b comprise at least 20 percent of total HDL in men and at least 30 percent in women.
There are also several subclasses of "bad" LDL. Those labeled I, IIa, and IIb don't appear to be much of a concern because they're very big particles and can't fit into crevices in arteries, and thus lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. However those labeled IIIa, IIIb, IVa, and IVb are much smaller and can fit into tiny crevices, possibly increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Scientists are not yet able to specify a lipoprotein level of these subclasses that would be considered harmful.
You can find out your cholesterol subgroup numbers through a simple blood test, though not all doctors regularly include this screening. However, keep in mind that specific treatments for improving your subgroup numbers don't yet exist beyond what you already can do to raise total HDL and lower total LDL.
Here are some strategies to raise "good" HDL and lower "bad" LDL levels and promote heart health:
1. Aerobic activity. Aim for at least 30 minutes almost every day.
2. Healthy fats. Trade in unhealthy saturated and hydrogenated fats found in butter, stick margarine and animal fat for healthy unsaturated and omega-3 fats found in canola oil, olive oil, nuts and salmon.
3. Moderate alcohol. Keep it to no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two for men.
4. Push a fiber-rich, plant-based diet. Enjoy lots of whole grains, fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts and seeds every day.
5. Maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight can wreak havoc on your lipid levels.