When it comes to cholesterol, protecting your heart is about more than just lowering your numbers. Keeping your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, or "bad" cholesterol, low can reduce your risk of heart disease. But a low level of HDL cholesterol is not a good thing. In fact, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a low HDL level is an independent predictor of coronary heart disease. Fortunately, you can make a few dietary and lifestyle changes to increase your HDL level.
Even though HDL is often referred to as "good" cholesterol, it is technically not cholesterol. It is actually a protein the body synthesizes to transport cholesterol. HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, carries cholesterol form the bloodstream to the liver, where it is recycled. HDL protects your heart because it prevents too much cholesterol building up in the bloodstream. According to the American Heart Association, HDL levels should be over 40 milligrams per deciliter for men and over 50 milligrams per deciliter for women.
Swap Your Fats
Believe it or not, eating a diet extremely low in fat will not help your HDL numbers. In fact, a very low-fat diet will lower your level of HDL. Fat is an important component of the diet, but the key is to choose the right fats. Saturated fats found in animal products and solid fats like butter raise your LDL levels. But unsaturated fats found in olive, canola or safflower oils may increase your HDL levels without raising your LDL. Avocados and nuts are other foods that provide a good source of healthy fats that can boost your HDL.
The Magic of Fish
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish are one of the most important nutrients for raising HDL levels along with lowering LDL. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least two times per week. Oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel and sea bass, contain the largest amount of omega-3 fatty acids. If you do not like fish or are allergic, talk to your doctor about taking a fish oil supplement. Other foods that contain small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids are ground flaxseed, soy foods, leafy green vegetables and walnuts.
Used in moderation, alcohol can also help raise HDL levels. Red wine has been found to be particularly effective. If you also have elevated triglyceride levels, however, you should avoid alcohol. Physical activity and moderate weight loss are also excellent methods to boost HDL. Frequent aerobic exercise can cause your body to produce more HDL. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of intense exercise per week. If you smoke, cutting the habit can also boost HDL levels.
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III)
- University of Massachusetts Medical School: What Can You Do to Raise Your HDL Cholesterol?
- American Heart Association: About Cholesterol
- American Heart Association: Know Your Fats