Metabolic Health

What Your Lipid Panel Results Mean for Heart Health

4 minutes read

We’re in a metabolic crisis that is closely linked to the widespread prevalence of cardiovascular health problems. Globally, 1 in 13 people live with heart disease, and in the United States, almost 2 in 5 adults have high cholesterol, which can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, and peripheral artery disease [1, 2]. 

Maintaining long-term cardiovascular health starts with a lipid panel, which measures the lipids (fats) in your blood and assesses your risk for heart disease. Once you have your lipid panel results, you can make informed choices about your diet and lifestyle to get your levels in a healthy range, and keep them there.

In this article, we'll break down the components of reading a lipid panel and key ways you can improve your lipid profile for heart health.

What is a lipid panel? 

A lipid panel is a blood test that looks at fat and cholesterol levels in the blood, serving as a predictor for heart disease risk. It assesses total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL), high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides (TG).

How do you read your lipid panel?

When you read a lipid panel, paying attention to the ratios between different types of cholesterol is important because a good cholesterol ratio shows that the body is working properly (your cholesterol ratio is your total cholesterol divided by your HDL cholesterol). 

While the ideal ratio is below 5, it should be looked at alongside your other lipid values to get a full picture of your heart health and metabolic health. If this is unclear, however, you may want to ask your healthcare provider to explain your ratio in more detail.

Total cholesterol

Total cholesterol is the sum of all cholesterol in your blood (LDL, HDL, VLDL summed with a small percentage of triglycerides). Cholesterol is made in the liver but also comes from the foods you eat, and is required for making hormones, cells, and vitamin D. 

The ideal level is less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Having either high levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” one) or low levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” one), or both, coupled with high levels of triglycerides, is one of the greatest predictors of heart disease and stroke risk [4].

One way to help control your total cholesterol is through simple lifestyle and diet modifications, which will be explained in more detail below.

HDL cholesterol: the “good” cholesterol

HDL cholesterol helps to remove LDL cholesterol from your blood, carrying most of it to the liver to then flush it out of your body. Thus, it has a protective role against heart disease which is why it is known as the “good” cholesterol.

Lifestyle behaviors like smoking, low activity levels, and high intake of saturated fats can lower HDL levels, so focusing on habits that can improve HDL levels is vital [6].

To ensure your HDL normal range is in check, aim to eat more healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids). You can get these fats fromtfoods like seafood, seaweed, tofu, avocado, olive oil, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin, sesame, and flax seeds. 

Not smoking, getting at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week (including both strength and cardio training), and moderating alcohol intake can also boost your HDL levels and heart health.

LDL cholesterol: the “bad” cholesterol

LDL cholesterol delivers cholesterol to your body, but when blood levels become abnormally high, excess cholesterol can accumulate in the arteries (forming plaque). Plaque makes it hard for blood to flow through your arteries, potentially leading to health complications.

Factors like not being active enough, high intake of saturated fat, smoking, and a high percentage of abdominal fat can elevate LDL levels. 

To maintain normal LDL levels and reduce LDL cholesterol, try limiting your saturated fat intake by eating less processed meats, fried foods, bakery products, and full-fat dairy items (such as sausages, burgers, salami, chips, butter, lard, chocolate, cream) and focus on incorporating more whole foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.


Triglycerides, a type of fat, are produced in the body (mainly in the liver, gut, fat, and muscle tissue) or obtained from foods like dairy products, cured meats, and cooking oils.

Regularly engaging in certain eating and lifestyle behaviors, such as excessive alcohol consumption, high sugar intake, low fiber intake, physical inactivity, and smoking, can elevate triglyceride levels, impacting heart and metabolic health [8]. To help control triglyceride levels, increase omega-3s found in foods like seafood, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, and boost fiber intake from non-starchy vegetables and whole grains like quinoa, barley, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, whole-grain rye, and oats.

What is the relationship between lipids and heart health? 

Having normal levels of lipids in your body is good for your heart. However, when these levels become imbalanced, you may experience health complications.

One example is when “bad” cholesterol accumulates in the arteries, forming plaque. This hard substance, composed of cholesterol, calcium, and waste products from our cells, gradually builds up in the arteries, causing arteries to become narrow. This narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis) is linked to an increased risk of stroke and heart attack [9].

Abnormal lipid levels (dyslipidemia) are also associated with a condition known as metabolic syndrome. This syndrome includes a cluster of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels [10].

Indeed, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides are two of the five clinical markers of metabolic health, so it's essential to consider these lipid markers alongside the other three markers (blood glucose, blood pressure, and waist circumference) for a full picture of your cardiometabolic health. In simpler terms, if one marker is off, there's a likelihood that others may be as well.

How can you improve your lipid profile and heart health? 

The following pillars involve lifestyle and dietary habits to optimize your lipid profile. Picture your health as a puzzle: these four pieces interconnect smoothly to form a complete picture of your heart health. 


Ensuring a high-quality diet is crucial for managing lipid levels and achieving optimal LDL levels for heart health. Research supports the strategy of reducing refined carbohydrates and saturated fats while increasing fiber and omega-3 intake. 

Simple dietary changes, such as adding nuts and seeds to meals like breakfasts, soups, and salads or opting for avocado-based spreads over butter or ghee can make an impact. 

In a study involving 53 healthy subjects, a modest increase in soluble fibre intake improved LDL cholesterol and glucose levels by 12% [11]. Foods like beans, brussels sprouts, avocado, oats, nuts, and seeds are rich in soluble fiber and can contribute to better heart health. Oats, in particular, contain beta-glucan, a form of soluble fiber associated with reductions in LDL cholesterol [12].


To enhance your lipid profile, focus on incorporating both strength training and cardio into your weekly routine. It's about getting started and maintaining a consistent exercise habit rather than pushing yourself too hard. 

Aim for a balanced combination of strength and cardio exercises, as they are crucial for improving heart health and other metabolic markers like weight, body composition, blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol [13]. In practice, this could mean 60 minutes of strength training per week (split over 1-2 days) and 90 minutes of aerobic exercise per week (split over 2-4 days).


Getting sufficient, quality sleep can positively impact your heart health, while sleep deprivation can negatively affect lipid levels, hunger and satiety signals, and eating behaviors [14, 15, 16].

Tips for better sleep include avoiding caffeine before bedtime (have it at least 6 hours before bedtime), finishing dinner at least 2-3 hours before bed, limiting high-fat and high-sugar meals close to bedtime, and going to bed at the same time every night (in complete darkness if possible) [17].


Chronic stress elevates cortisol, impacting heart health. Strategies to manage stress, besides exercise (even just 10 minutes improves mood), include spending time outdoors or engaging in passive activities like reading, drawing, or meditating [18]. Even 5-10 minutes each day or every few days to engage in meditation can provide stress relief. One systematic review found that mindfulness-based activities positively impact weight loss outcomes (reduced waist circumference and body fat percentage), a metric to consider when you are looking to improve heart and metabolic health [19].

Key takeaways 

  • When interpreting lipid panel results, consider all your lipid ranges to understand the full picture of your heart health, not one single range. Abnormal lipid levels are high LDL and triglyceride levels, and low HDL levels, and can indicate metabolic syndrome.
  • Your lipid markers (HDL cholesterol and triglycerides) are two of the five clinical markers of metabolic health. The other three clinical health markers are blood glucose, blood pressure, and waist circumference. All five markers are interrelated. 
  • Eat a diet rich in wholefoods rich in omega 3-s, fiber, and unsaturated fats, and low in saturated fats from mostly processed foods.
  • Be active on a regular basis — 150 minutes per week, including a mix of strength and cardio training.
  • Get good and regular quality sleep, avoiding caffeine in the afternoon/evening and high sugar and high-fat meals close to bedtime.
  • If you feel stressed occasionally, try practicing some stress management techniques like meditation.



Written by: Giulia Rossetto, MSc, RD
Reviewed by: Emily Johnson, MSc RD

Table of Contents

  • What is a lipid panel?
  • How do you read your lipid panel?
  • What is the relationship between lipids and heart health?
  • How can you improve your lipid profile and heart health?
  • Key takeaways


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