Your heart health is indicated by your cholesterol levels. Good cholesterol or HDL cholesterol need to be at a higher level for your heart to function well.
Although your doctor may have told you to lower your total cholesterol, it is important to raise your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. It might sound like a mixed message, but reducing “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and increasing HDL cholesterol is what actually lowers your risk of heart disease.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is found in all of your cells and has several useful functions, including helping to build your body’s cells. It is carried through your bloodstream attached to proteins. These proteins are called lipoproteins.
Low-density lipoproteins – These lipoproteins carry cholesterol throughout your body, delivering it to different organs and tissues. But if your body has more cholesterol than it needs, the excess keeps circulating in your blood. Over time, circulating LDL cholesterol can enter your blood vessel walls and start to build up under the vessel lining. Deposits of LDL cholesterol particles within the vessel walls are called plaques, and they begin to narrow your blood vessels and eventually blocking blood flow, causing coronary artery disease. This is why LDL cholesterol is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol.
High-density lipoproteins – These lipoproteins are often referred to as HDL, or “good,” cholesterol. They act as cholesterol scavengers, picking up excess cholesterol in your blood and taking it back to your liver where it is broken down. The higher your HDL level, the less “bad” cholesterol you will have in your blood.
Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood or millimoles (mmol) per liter (L). When it comes to HDL cholesterol, aim for a higher number. If your HDL cholesterol level falls between the at-risk and desirable levels, you should keep trying to increase your HDL level to reduce your risk of heart disease.
At Risk: Less than 40 mg/dL (1.0 mmol/L)
Desirable: 60 mg/dL (1.6 mmol/L) or above
At Risk: Less than 50 mg/dL (1.3 mmol/L)
Desirable: 60 mg/dL (1.6 mmol/L) or above
If you don’t know your HDL level, ask your doctor for a baseline cholesterol test.
Lifestyle Changes You can Adopt
Your lifestyle has the single greatest impact on your HDL cholesterol. Even small changes to your daily habits can help you meet your HDL target.
- Don’t smoke. If you smoke, quit. Quitting smoking can increase your HDL cholesterol by up to 10 percent. Quitting isn’t easy, but you can increase your odds of success by trying more than one strategy at a time. Talk with your doctor about your options for quitting.
- Lose weight. Extra pounds take a toll on HDL cholesterol. If you’re overweight, losing even a few pounds can improve your HDL level.
- Get more physical activity. Within two months of starting, frequent aerobic exercise can increase HDL cholesterol by about 5 percent in otherwise healthy sedentary adults. Your best bet for increasing HDL cholesterol is to exercise briskly for 30 minutes five times a week.
- Choose healthier fats. A healthy diet includes some fat, but there’s a limit. In a heart-healthy diet, between 25 and 35 percent of your total daily calories can come from fat — but saturated fat should account for less than 7 percent of your total daily calories. Avoid foods that contain saturated and trans fats, which raise LDL cholesterol and damage your blood vessels.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation. Moderate use of alcohol has been linked with higher levels of HDL cholesterol. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
Foods to Include
- Whole grains, such as oatmeal, oat bran and whole-wheat products
- Nuts, such as walnuts, almonds and brazil nuts
- Plant sterols such as beta-sitosterol and -sitostanol (typically found in margarine spreads such as Promise Activ or Benecol)
- Omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish, fish oil supplements, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
- Fiber in our vegetables, nuts, and grains spike good cholesterol levels in our body, so hog on to salads as your mid meal snack. Also a handful of nuts can boost your HDL drastically. Try out vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, carrots, Brussels sprouts, greens, pumpkin and sweet potatoes.
- Fruits like bananas, pears, apples, avocados, prunes and berries are rich in calcium, antioxidants and fiber, but they can lower your LDL. Among fruit juices, orange juice stands at the top of the list; it is a great way to energize, stay cool and healthy with just a glass.
- All types of beans – from chick peas to lentils and even plain old baked beans – can help to boost your levels of good cholesterol.
- Oily fish – Fish such as salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel and herring contain an active ingredient called omega-3 fatty acids which has been proven to boost levels of good cholesterol.
- Olive oil – Although olive oil is a fat it is a monounsaturated fat which has been shown to both reduce bad cholesterol and boost good cholesterol.
- Avocados also contain monounsaturated fats. Researchers in Israel have discovered that people who ate avocados every day for three months dramatically cut their levels of LDLs.
- Wine – Several studies have shown that red wine can boost levels of good cholesterol. It is thought this is linked to antioxidants in red grapes which help prevent bad cholesterol from becoming oxidized and therefore from sticking to the artery walls. The ideal amount to have is one unit of wine a day. Medics warn that in excess alcohol can increase conditions such as high blood pressure and liver disease.
- Dark Chocolate ─ Preferably 70% cocoa or greater. Not exceed 40 grams, or approximately 2 inches square, per day.
- Exercise ─ The magnitude of increase in HDL depends to a great degree on your starting level. People who begin from a sedentary lifestyle can expect 10 mg/dl increase or more; people who begin with mild-moderate activity can expect less.
- Soy – The protein present in soybean protects against various heart ailments. Soybean helps in lowering bad cholesterol and simultaneously increases good cholesterol.
- Ladies finger – This vegetable is a great agent for lowering bad cholesterol, because it is a good source of soluble fiber. But avoid frying these, as that would diminish their nutritional properties.
If you are currently taking medications, talk to your doctor before starting any supplement to avoid potential harmful interactions.