HDL Cholesterol or high-density lipoprotein is often called the “good” cholesterol.
It’s GOOD because having higher levels of HDL helps carry the bad cholesterol (LDL, low-density lipoprotein) away from your arteries to your liver, where it can be used or excreted.
High levels of HDL Cholesterol also has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
Your best target HDL Cholesterol levels are 40 mg/dl for men, and 50 mg/dl for women. But while genetics definitely play a role, there are other factors that affect your HDL levels.
Here are some healthy ways to raise your “good” HDL cholesterol.
Olive oil is one of the healthiest fats around. Xtra virgin olive oil may be more healthful than processed olive oils.
- One of its heart-healthy effects is an increase in HDL Cholesterol. This effect is thought to be caused by antioxidants found in it called polyphenols.
A large investigation of 42 studies with more than 800,000 participants found that olive oil was the only source of monounsaturated fat that seemed to cut heart disease risk.
Research has shown that one of the olive oil’s heart-healthy effects is an increase in HDL cholesterol. This effect is thought to be caused by antioxidants called polyphenols.
Extra virgin olive oil has more polyphenols than more processed olive oils, although the amount can still vary among different types and brands.
One study gave 200 healthy young men about 2 tablespoons (25 ml) of different olive oils per day for three weeks.
- The researchers found that participants’ HDL levels increased significantly after they consumed the olive oil with the highest polyphenol content.
In another study, when 62 older adults consumed about 4 tablespoons (50 ml) of high-polyphenol extra virgin olive oil every day for six weeks, their HDL cholesterol increased by 6.5 mg/dl, on average.
Extra virgin olive oil with a high polyphenol content has been shown to increase HDL levels in healthy people, the elderly and people with high cholesterol.
- Whenever possible, select high-quality, certified extra virgin olive oils, which tend to be highest in polyphenols.
Low-carb diets offer a number of health benefits, including weight loss and reduced blood sugar levels. And, they’ve also been shown to increase HDL cholesterol.
This is especially helpful for those who are obese, insulin resistant or diabetic.
In one study, people with type 2 diabetes were split into two groups.
- One followed a diet consuming less than 50 grams of carbs per day. The other followed a high-carb diet.
Although both groups lost weight, the low-carb group’s HDL cholesterol increased almost twice as much as the high-carb groups did.
- Meanwhile, in the same study, the participants who ate a low-fat, high-carb diet showed a decrease in HDL cholesterol.
This response may partly be due to the higher levels of fat people typically consume on low-carb diets.
- Contrary to popular belief, one study in overweight women found that diets high in meat and cheese (high protein diets) increased HDL levels by 5-8%, compared to a higher-carb diet.
In addition to raising HDL cholesterol, low-carb (high protein) diets have been shown to lower triglycerides and improve several other risk factors for heart disease.
Low-carb diets typically increase HDL cholesterol levels, particularly in people with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.
Being physically active is important for heart health.
Studies have shown that many types of exercise are effective at raising HDL cholesterol, including strength training, high-intensity exercise, and aerobic exercise.
However, the biggest increases in HDL are typically seen with high-intensity exercise.
One study followed women who were living with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is linked to a higher risk of insulin resistance.
- The study required them to perform high-intensity exercise three times a week for 10 weeks.
The exercises led to an increase in HDL cholesterol of 8 mg/dL after 10 weeks.
- The women also showed improvements in other health markers, including decreased insulin resistance and improved arterial function.
In a 12-week study, overweight men who performed high-intensity exercise experienced a 10% increase in HDL cholesterol.
- In contrast, the low-intensity exercise group showed only a 2% increase and the endurance training group experienced no change.
However, take heart if you aren’t able to tolerate the higher intensity exercises.
- Even lower-intensity exercise seems to increase the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacities of HDL, even if the levels don’t change.
Overall, high-intensity exercise such as high-intensity interval training and high-intensity circuit training may boost HDL cholesterol levels the most.
Smoking increases the risk of many health problems, including heart disease and lung cancer.
- One of its negative effects is a decrease of HDL cholesterol.
Some studies have found that quitting smoking can increase HDL levels.
- In a one-year study of more than 1,500 people, those who quit smoking had twice the increase in HDL as those who resumed smoking within the year. The number of large HDL particles also increased, which further reduced heart disease risk.
One study followed smokers who switched from traditional cigarettes to electronic cigarettes for one year.
- They found that the switch was associated with an increase in HDL cholesterol of 5 mg/dl, on average.
Even in studies where HDL cholesterol levels didn’t increase after people quit smoking, HDL function improved, resulting in less inflammation and other beneficial effects on heart health.
6. Lose weight
- What’s more, this benefit seems to occur whether the weight is lost by calorie counting, carb restriction, intermittent fasting, weight loss surgery or a combination of diet and exercise.
One study examined HDL levels in more than 3,000 overweight and obese Japanese adults who followed a lifestyle modification program for one year.
- The researchers found that losing at least 6.6 lbs (3 kg) led to an increase in HDL cholesterol of 4 mg/dl, on average.
In another study, when obese people with type 2 diabetes consumed calorie-restricted diets that provided 20-30% of calories from protein, they experienced significant increases in HDL cholesterol levels.
Several methods of weight loss have been shown to increase HDL cholesterol levels in people who are overweight or obese.
Eating purple-colored fruits and vegetables is a delicious way to potentially increase HDL cholesterol.
- Purple produce contains antioxidants known as anthocyanins, which have been shown to help fight inflammation, protect your cells from damaging free radicals and may also raise HDL cholesterol levels.
- In a 24-week study of 58 people with diabetes, those who took an anthocyanin supplement twice a day experienced a 19% increase in HDL cholesterol, on average, along with other improvements in heart health markers.
- In another study, when people with cholesterol issues took anthocyanin extract for 12 weeks, their HDL cholesterol levels increased by 13.7%.
Although these studies used extracts instead of foods, there are several fruits and vegetables that are very high in anthocyanins. These include:
- purple corn
- red cabbage
- black raspberries
- grape juice
The omega-3 fats in fatty fish offer major benefits to heart health, including a reduction in inflammation and better functioning of the cells that line your arteries.
There’s some research showing that eating fatty fish or taking fish oil may also help raise low levels of HDL cholesterol.
Types of fatty fish that may help raise HDL cholesterol include:
9. Avoid artificial trans fats
Artificial trans fats have many negative health effects due to their inflammatory properties.
There are two types of trans fats.
- One kind occurs naturally in animal products, including full-fat dairy.
In contrast, the artificial trans fats found in some kinds of margarine and processed foods are created by adding hydrogen to unsaturated vegetable and seed oils.
These fats are also known as industrial trans fats or partially hydrogenated fats.
Research has shown that, in addition to increasing inflammation and contributing to several health problems, these artificial trans fats may lower HDL cholesterol levels.
➡ In one study, researchers compared how people’s HDL levels responded when they consumed different kinds of margarine.
- The study found that participants’ HDL cholesterol levels were 10% lower after consuming margarine containing partially hydrogenated soybean oil, compared to their levels after consuming palm oil.
➡ Another controlled study followed 40 adults who had diets high in different types of trans fats.
- They found that HDL cholesterol levels in women were much lower after they consumed the diet high in industrial trans fats, compared to the diet containing naturally occurring trans fats.
To protect heart health and keep HDL cholesterol in the healthy range, it’s best to avoid artificial trans fats altogether.
The REAL bottom line:
Although your HDL cholesterol levels are partly determined by your genetics, there are many things you can do to naturally increase your own levels.
The real prize, however, is that the practices that raise HDL cholesterol often offer a multitude of other health benefits.