When you think of cholesterol, you probably think of “bad” or high cholesterol. There’s also a “good” type of cholesterol, though, that your body needs.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the good kind of cholesterol and the kind you want. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the bad kind of cholesterol and the kind you want to keep in check. HDL, LDL, and triglycerides — a type of fat carried in the blood — make up total cholesterol levels.
HDL is like a vacuum cleaner or snowplow for cholesterol in the body. When it’s at healthy levels in your blood, it removes extra cholesterol and plaque buildup in your arteries and then sends it to your liver. Your liver expels it from your body. Ultimately, this will help reduce your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Keep reading to learn more about HDL and what foods you should be eating to raise your HDL ratio in relation to total cholesterol.
The American Heart Association recommends getting a cholesterol blood test by age 20. It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about getting one sooner if you’re at risk for heart conditions or overweight or obese.
An ideal HDL level is 60 milligrams/deciliter (mg/dL) or above. Your HDL is considered low if it’s below 40 mg/dL. You should aim to have an HDL level between 40 and 60 mg/dL.
A bagel with cream cheese for breakfast, a piece of fried chicken for lunch, a steak sautéed in butter for dinner, and a bowl of ice cream at night aren’t ideal for your cholesterol. These are sources of saturated and trans fat. They can increase your LDL and total cholesterol levels.
The things that increase HDL are actually not food, but several medical and environmental factors. Avoiding the following increases your HDL:
- type 2 diabetes
Some hormones increase HDL concentrations, such as estrogen or thyroid hormone. Exercise and moderate alcohol consumption is associated with higher HDL, too.
The right food choices can lower your LDL levels, which improves your HDL to LDL ratio. The Mediterranean diet is a good place to start. Research has shown it’s associated with better cholesterol and overall health. Start incorporating the following Mediterranean-style and HDL-friendly foods into your daily diet.
The type of heart-healthy fat found in olives and olive oil can lower the inflammatory impact of LDL cholesterol on your body.
Swap extra-virgin olive oil for all your other oils and fats when cooking at low temperatures, since extra-virgin olive oil breaks down at high temperatures. Use the oil in salad dressings, sauces, and to flavor foods once they’re cooked. Sprinkle chopped olives on salads or add them to soups, like in this Sicilian fish soup. Just be sure to use extra-virgin olive oil in moderation, since it’s high in calories.
Like whole grains, beans and legumes are a great source of soluble fiber. Reach for black beans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, navy beans, lentils, and others. Canned beans contain about half as much folate as cooked dry beans. Folate is an important B vitamin that’s healthy for your heart.
You can also whip up this spicy Southwestern black bean chili during the week for an easy, family-friendly dinner.
Whole grains, including bran, cereals, and brown or wild rice, may lower your LDL and total cholesterol. This in turn gives your HDL levels a percentage boost. That’s because they contain fiber — specifically soluble fiber, which is shown to help lower LDL.
Fruits with a lot of fiber, such as prunes, apples, and pears, can lower your LDL level, in turn raising your HDL level. Slice them up and stir them into cereal or oatmeal, or throw them into your blender and create a delicious smoothie. They’re just as great plain, too, either as a mid-afternoon snack or a treat after dinner.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish, can lower your LDL. Look for fattier options, such as:
- albacore tuna
- rainbow trout
Aim for two servings of fish per week. If you don’t like fish or can’t eat enough fish to fulfill your omega-3 goals, ask your doctor about fish oil or krill oil supplements. These over-the-counter supplements can deliver more than 1,000 mg of omega-3-rich oil in each pill. However, they still don’t deliver the same benefits as the food itself.
Ground flax seeds and flaxseed oil also contain omega-3 fatty acids. Many vegetarians use flax seed as a source of omega-3 fatty acids because they’re one of the better plant-based sources of this heart-healthy fat.
Make sure to buy ground flax seed. Whole flax seeds are almost impossible for your body to break down. This means they pass through your body largely intact and never leave behind any of their nutrients.
Ground flax seed can be sprinkled onto your morning cereal, oatmeal, salads, dips, or yogurt, or added to baked goods. Flaxseed oil is a welcome addition to salad dressings or smoothies.
Nuts, including Brazil nuts, almonds, pistachios, peanuts, and others, are filled with heart-healthy fats. They’re also high in fiber and contain a substance called plant sterols. Plant sterols block the absorption of cholesterol in your body.
Eat an ounce or two for a snack or incorporate them into meals. Try this banana and walnut smoothie for a nutritious breakfast, or steam-sautéed green beans with almonds and parsley for an easy but elegant side dish.
Just remember that if you’re watching your calories, keep your nut portions in check with a measuring cup or scale, since they’re high in calories.
Chia seeds are a good source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and other healthy nutrients. Adding chia seeds to your diet may help lower LDL levels and decrease blood pressure.
Like flax seeds, chia seeds are great when added to cereal, oatmeal, dips, salads, yogurt, or smoothies. Unlike flax seeds, however, chia seeds can develop a somewhat slimy texture when they’re wet due to mucilaginous properties. If that’s a problem for you, consume chia seeds immediately, or try adding them to your baked goods in place of eggs.
Today, because it’s growing in popularity, chia seeds are available in many food products at the grocery store.
The food world’s new favorite fruit is also one of the healthiest. Avocados are high in folate, a healthy monounsaturated fat. This type of fat lowers LDL and reduces your risk for stroke, heart attack, and heart disease. They’re also filled with fiber, which naturally helps keep cholesterol in check.
Add slices of avocado to salads, soups, chilis, or sandwiches. Guacamole is a great option, too. Just be sure to reach for low-calorie dippers, like carrots, radishes, and tomatoes, instead of high-calorie, high-salt tortilla chips.
Soy-based products aren’t just for vegetarians. Incorporating this food into your diet is a great way to reduce your meat consumption. When people eat less meat, their LDL levels will most likely decrease, and their HDL levels will most likely increase.
However, it’s possible that the positive benefit seen between soy and cholesterol levels is the result of eating less meat and eating more heart-healthy food, not because of soy specifically.
Steamed, unsalted edamame makes a great appetizer. This edamame spread is a healthier dip option for a party or gathering. Extra-firm tofu grills beautifully, and this tofu vegetable kebab recipe will please even your meat-loving friends.
Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, including red wine, has been shown to raise HDL levels. It’s also been shown to lower your risk of heart disease. A moderate amount of alcohol is defined as just one glass per day for women and two glasses per day for men.
However, red wine shouldn’t be consumed if you also have high triglycerides. If you don’t already drink, you shouldn’t start just for the heart-healthy benefits. Talk with your doctor about your drinking habits and whether they put you at an increased risk of any other condition.
Eating the right foods can help you reduce your bad cholesterol and improve your good cholesterol, but it’s not the only thing you should be doing to reach your desired levels. Here are some steps you can take:
- Get moving. Daily exercise is one of the best natural ways to boost your HDL. If you’re new to exercise, start slow. Aim for 10 to 15 minutes of walking a few times a week. Slowly build up to at least 30 minutes of vigorous walking at least five times per week.
- Shed some pounds. One of the benefits of exercise could be weight loss. Reducing your weight can help raise your HDL and lower your LDL cholesterol levels.
- Analyze your genetics. Sometimes, despite all your efforts, you’ll still struggle with healthy cholesterol levels. Genetics can play a big role in your cholesterol levels, so speak with your doctor about your personal risks and what you can do to address them.
- Take care of your digestive system. Emerging research is finding that your gut flora or microbiome influences your cholesterol levels and heart disease risk. Adding probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and fermented foods to your daily diet is a good idea.
Before you begin dramatically changing your diet or taking any supplements, you should talk with your doctor and dietitian. Food is an outstanding and all-natural way to deliver more heart-healthy vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to your body. However, certain foods and supplements are off-limits because of their possible interactions with medications or prescriptions.
Therefore, before you begin loading up on these foods and supplements to boost your HDL and lower your LDL numbers, talk with your doctor. Together, the two of you can strategize healthy, positive ways for you to get your cholesterol numbers headed in the right direction.