HDL cholesterol is known as the good type of cholesterol, as it clears up LDL (bad) cholesterol and works to lower your risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions. When HDL cholesterol is low, your heart disease risk goes up because of LDL cholesterol buildup in the arteries, which makes them stiff and clogged, thus hindering proper blood flow. This puts added stress on the heart, increasing the risk of damage and disease.
The optimal level of HDL cholesterol for both men and women is 60 mg/dL or above. HDL cholesterol level below 40 mg/dL in men and below 50 mg/dL in women is considered risky for the heart.
What causes low HDL cholesterol levels?
There are many causes for low HDL cholesterol levels.
Uncontrolled diabetes: High glucose levels can lower HDL cholesterol. Proper management of diabetes can help return your HDL cholesterol back into a healthy range.
Smoking: Chemicals in cigarettes can lower HDL cholesterol, while cessation can bring it back up.
Lack of physical activity: Even moderate physical activity has been found to give your HDL cholesterol levels a boost – all you need is 30 minutes a day.
Excess weight: Being overweight can lower your HDL cholesterol levels. Shedding a few pounds can help.
Genetics: Sometimes, low HDL cholesterol levels can be hereditary. There are genetic disorders that cause low HDL cholesterol as well.
Stress: Long-term stress can negatively impact HDL cholesterol levels. Stress-induced sleep loss can further decrease your HDL.
Poor eating habits: A diet high in refined foods and sugar can contribute to high levels of LDL cholesterol.
Lifestyle changes to boost HDL cholesterol levels
Here are the foods you can easily incorporate into your heart-healthy diet to either help lower your LDL cholesterol or boost your HDL cholesterol levels.
Oats: Changing you morning meal might be the simplest way to whittle down your LDL cholesterol (the bad kind). By taking two servings of oats, you can lower LDL by 5.3 percent in only six weeks. Oats contain beta-glucan, which plays a key role in LDL removal and excretion from the body.
Nuts: A study shows that people lowered their total cholesterol by 5.4 percent and LDL cholesterol by 9.3 percent by taking 1.5 ounces of walnuts six days a week for one month. Details of the study can be gleaned from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. And just to make it easy for you, 1.5 ounces is about a shot glass and a half.
Tea: Tea contains a lot of antioxidants to fight inflammation. In some cases, it even fights cancer. Not many people know, however, that tea is also a great defence against LDL cholesterol. According to research conducted with the USDA, black tea has been shown to reduce blood lipids by up to 10 percent in only three weeks.
Beans: Researchers at Arizona State University Polytechnic found that adding ½ cup of beans to soup lowers total cholesterol, including LDL, by up to eight percent. The fiber content in beans plays an important role in limiting the absorption of dietary cholesterol.
Olive oil: This staple ingredient of the Mediterranean diet has found its way to the shelves of grocery stores worldwide. The reason? It is full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, which can help lower LDL cholesterol. Olive oil has the added benefit of helping keep your waistline where you want it to be.
Fatty fish: Fatty fish are loaded with omega-3s, which can help raise HDL levels. According to research from Loma Linda University, replacing saturated fats with omega-3s like those found in salmon, sardines, and herring can raise good cholesterol as much as four percent.
Red wine: The Mayo Clinic suggests that red wine in moderation can reduce heart disease. The antioxidants in red wine increase the HDL levels to protect against artery damage.
Chocolate: Chocolate is good for you. And even better for your arteries. In a 2007 study, participants showed a 24 percent increase in HDL levels after taking cocoa powder over a period of 12 weeks. In the same study, people in the control group showed just a five percent increase in HDL. The full details of the study are published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Remember to choose the dark or bittersweet kind.
Avocados: This vegetable/fruit is a great source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, a type of fat that may actually help raise HDL cholesterol while lowering LDL. And, more than any other fruit, this delectable food packs cholesterol-smashing beta-sitosterol, a beneficial plant-based fat that reduces the amount of cholesterol absorbed from food. However, too much avocado can add to the waistline.
Grass-fed meat: If you want heart-healthy meats, you need not look beyond grass-fed meats. They tend to be much lower in total fat than grain-fed meats. A sirloin steak from a grass-fed steer has almost one-third the amount of fat as a similar cut from a grain-fed steer. In fact, grass-fed meat has as little fat as a skinless chicken. Meat this lean can actually lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. The other advantage of grass-fed meat is its low calorie count.
Whole grains: According to Harvard research, eating whole grains substantially lowers total cholesterol, bad cholesterol, triglycerides, and insulin levels. Any of these changes can reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease. Many people think they are being healthy by eating multi-grain bread. This is junk food masquerading as healthy. You are much better off eating straight-up barley, brown rice, quinoa, or steel-cut oats.
Dark chocolate: Chocolate contains flavonoids that act as antioxidants, which help the cardiovascular system. When Harvard researchers studied the effects of cocoa flavonoids on heart health, they found that the flavonoids reduced unhealthy LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin resistance, while increasing healthy HDL cholesterol and improving blood flow.
Making even small changes to your daily routine and lifestyle can positively impact your health. Here are a few things you can do to influence your HDL levels:
- Quit smoking – Giving up smoking can increase your good cholesterol by 10 percent. If you need help, ask your doctor about your options.
- Lose weight – If your BMI is over 25, losing a few pounds can impact your cholesterol levels.
- Exercise regularly – Regular exercise can increase good cholesterol levels by up to five percent in just two months. Brisk exercise, such as walking, swimming, cycling, gardening, and running, can increase your heart rate. Try brisk exercise for 30 minutes or in three 10-minute intervals.
- Eat healthy – Only 25 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from fat. However, you should avoid saturated and trans fats because they raise bad cholesterol levels. Try polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats instead, which can be found in peanut, canola, and olive oils. Omega-3 fatty acids are also beneficial and can be found in nuts and fish.
- Consume alcohol in moderation – Basically, just drink less. Moderate amounts of alcohol are actually linked to high levels of good cholesterol. Women should only have one drink a day, while men should have no more than two.
Making these lifestyle changes can help you boost your HDL cholesterol levels naturally.