High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is one of the five main types of lipoproteins found in circulation, together with very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL), intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL), low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and chylomicrons.
After a fatty meal, the blood is filled with chylomicrons, which carry triglycerides (TGAs). The TGAs are transferred to cells from chylomicrons via the activity of enzymes, in the form of free fatty acids (FFAs), which are used by those cells as sources of energy.
After delivering FFAs to the cells, the chylomicrons progressively lose their TGA content and “shrink”, eventually being absorbed and recycled by the liver. The liver exports part of the TGAs that it gets from chylomicrons back to cells for use as energy as well, now in the form of VLDL. As VLDL particles deliver TGAs to the cells they shrink in size, similarly to chylomicrons. As they shrink, VLDL particles first become IDL and then LDL particles.
The figure below (click on it to enlarge), from Elliott & Elliott (2009; reference at the end of this post), shows, on the same scale: (a) VLDL particles, (b) chylomicrons, (c) LDL particles, and (d) HDL particles. The dark bar at the bottom of each shot is 1000 A in length, or 100 nm (A = angstrom; nm = nanometer; 1 nm = 10 A).
As you can see from the figure, most of the LDL particles shown are about 1/4 of the length of the dark bar in diameter, often slightly more, or about 25-27 nm in size. They come in different sizes, with sizes in this range being the most common. The smaller and denser they are, the more likely they are to contribute to the formation of atherosclerotic plaque in the presence of other factors, such as chronic inflammation. The larger they become, which usually happens in diets high in saturated fat, the less likely they are to form plaque.
Note that the HDL particles are rather small compared to the LDL particles. Shouldn’t they cause plaque then? Not really. Apparently they have to be small, compared to LDL particles, to do their job effectively.
HDL is a completely different animal from VLDL, IDL and LDL. HDL particles are produced by the liver as dense disk-like particles, known as nascent HDL particles. These nascent HDL particles progressively pick up cholesterol from cells, as well as performing a number of other functions, and “fatten up” with cholesterol in the process.
This process also involves HDL particles picking up cholesterol from plaque in the artery walls, which is one of the reasons why HDL cholesterol is informally called “good” cholesterol. In fact, neither HDL nor LDL are really cholesterol; HDL and LDL are particles that carry cholesterol, protein and fat.
As far as particle size is concerned, LDL and HDL are opposites. Large LDL particles are the least likely to cause plaque formation, because LDL particles have to be approximately 25 nm in diameter or smaller to penetrate the artery walls. With HDL the opposite seems to be true, as HDL particles need to be small (compared with LDL particles) to easily penetrate the artery walls in order to pick up cholesterol, leave the artery walls with their cargo, and have it returned back to the liver.
Interestingly, some research suggests HDL particles that are larger in size, when compared with other HDL particles (not with LDL particles), seem to do a better job than very small HDL particles in terms of reducing risk of cardiovascular disease. It is also possible that a high number of larger HDL particles in the blood is indicative of elevated levels of "effective" HDL particles; i.e., particles that are effective at picking up cholesterol from the artery walls in the first place.
Another interesting aspect of this cycle is that the return to the liver of cholesterol picked up by HDL appears to be done largely via IDL and LDL particles (Elliott & Elliott, 2009), which get the cholesterol directly from HDL particles! Life is not that simple.
William H. Elliott & Daphne C. Elliott (2009). Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. 4th Edition. New York: NY: Oxford University Press.