Do you dread opening up the white envelope of lab results after your annual physical only to discover a jumble of numbers, red ink, and arrows pointing every possible direction? Lipid or cholesterol panel results can be confusing to comprehend, and when numbers come back “out of range” it can only further fuel feelings of discouragement and helplessness.
When it comes to cholesterol, not all types are created equal, and it is important to understand how lifestyle choices significantly impact cardiovascular health. High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is known as the “healthy” or “good” type of cholesterol due to the fact that it scavenges and removes the “bad” type of cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein or LDL) known to clog arteries. A desirable HDL level is anything greater than 60 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
The good news is that changing your cholesterol levels is well within your control as some of the smallest lifestyle tweaks can yield a profound impact. A fast track to boosting HDL includes quitting smoking and increasing physical activity. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least 5 times per week with two sessions of resistance training. Your choices at mealtimes, however, may prove to be an easier more attainable way to make lasting change. Here are the foods that raise HDL cholesterol.
While the world of wellness endlessly touts of benefits of anti-inflammatory foods, who knew eating these could kill two birds with one stone by also improving your cholesterol? Blueberries are rich in anthocyanins, the phytochemical that gives this berry its dark blue pigment and are essential to overall heart health through enhancing anti-inflammatory pathways as well as increasing HDL cholesterol levels, according to a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. One 2013 study found that consuming blueberries in tandem with exercise can increase HDL levels even more than exercise alone.
As if we needed another excuse to grab a second scoop of guac at the tailgate? Avocados are the poster child for the heart-healthy diet due to their rich abundance of monounsaturated fat, high fiber, and potassium. Monounsaturated fats from avocados, in particular, have been connected to an increase of HDL cholesterol and decreases of total cholesterol, LDL particles, and triglycerides, as shown in an Archives of Medical Research study. These can even be substituted for heart-harmful hydrogenated oils in baked goods as the fruit yields the same creamy texture and mouthfeel. Avocado brownies anyone?!
Though the age-old myth stating eggs are bad for our blood cholesterol has been debunked, one thing for certain is that reducing total saturated fats in the diet leads to an improved cholesterol profile. What does this mean in terms of animal protein? The American Heart Association recommends consuming less red meat overall and choosing leaner cuts to lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol. Chicken is a versatile choice that doesn’t have to be boring or dry. Check out our 35 healthy ways to prepare this bird!
Sugar and spice and everything nice… except for the fact that recent data has shown that added sugar is not so nice for our cardiovascular health or waistlines. In fact, a study published in Circulation found that people with the highest consumption of added sugars show significantly lower HDL levels. To cut back on your added sugar intake and increase HDL levels, consider replacing sugar with dates when you’re making baked goods like homemade granola bars, cookies, and cakes. It’s one way to slice total added sugars in half and will also give your sweet treat extra fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Besides putting your heart health at risk, sugar is also known to be one of the most significant contributors to metabolic syndrome. In fact, the recent 2015 Dietary Guidelines labeled sugar as a “nutrient of concern” and voiced recommendations for added sugars to not exceed greater than 10% of total daily calories. So, if your goal is to nip sugar in the bud and increase your HDL cholesterol levels, start by evaluating your libations.
Are you pouring up a glass of OJ in the morning? Is your daily caffeine fix a fountain coke at the local gas station? What about that fruity cocktail tempting you at happy hour? Eliminating sweetened beverages from the daily routine is one of the easiest ways to cut thousands of calories or more per week, but will also put years on your life. Water is the best form of hydration and can be flavored with citrus, tropical fruits, and herbs to create a refreshing spa-like oasis that will increase HDL levels when it replaces your typical sugar-sweetened beverages.
Eating seafood twice per week is a surefire way to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. Fatty fish like salmon yields some of the greatest anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy benefits, as a Journal of Nutrition study found salmon protein to significantly increase the proportion of HDL cholesterol. One tip: fish should be purchased wild and sustainably caught. For a consumer guide on how to make informed choices you can check out the consumer guides provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.
Almonds & Almond Flour
Cake with only 10 grams of carbs… have we died and gone to heaven?? When you substitute regular wheat flour for almond flour, true magic happens in the kitchen. Not only do you benefit from a serving of plant-based protein and get a delectably fluffy texture in your baked goods, but you’ll also experience the heart-healing power of nuts. Almonds have been found to increase low HDL cholesterol levels in coronary artery disease patients, according to a Journal of Nutrition study, as well as in healthy subjects. For a simple almond flour mug cake recipe click here, don’t miss Wholesome Yum’s recipe.
Nothing says summer quite like a box of juicy raspberries. This is one of the highest fiber fruits that will not only improve your cholesterol profile and increase HDL levels, but it will also promote greater satiety and weight loss. Add fresh or frozen to a smoothie, or enjoy all by their lonesome for a refreshing pick-me-up.
An under-valued element of bone and cardiovascular health is the role of Vitamin K2, which many individuals are unknowingly deficient in. Found in the Japanese breakfast delicacy “natto” (fermented soybeans), vitamin K2 not only helps remove calcium from the arteries and soft tissues to prevent atherosclerosis, but it also draws calcium into the bones to prevent the risk of fracture. Nattokinase, an enzyme found in natto, may help to increase HDL levels while lowering total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, according to an Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition study.
Fatty fish is not the only source of heart-healthy omega-3s! In fact, flaxseed is one of the richest sources of the anti-inflammatory fat. In animal models supplementation of flaxseed has shown to increase HDL levels which is why cardiologists and dietitians recommend it be incorporated into a balanced diet. Consumers beware though—in order for the gut to fully absorb the vitamins, minerals this seed provides, the ground version needs to be purchased.
Whole Grain Pasta
Pasta and heart health together in one sentence seems to be an oxymoron, however with one small tweak spaghetti can become a cholesterol-busting meal. Instead of opting for white, refined noodles, choose the less-processed, vitamin-enriched counterpart: whole grain pasta. Barilla makes one that has 7 grams of fiber per serving, and — what’s more — none of the stress-fighting B-vitamins have been removed. A B vitamin known as niacin has been found to decrease LDL levels and increase HDL when taken in doses above your vitamin requirement, according to a guide to lowering your cholesterol by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It’s about time you figure out how to eat this darn thing, because an artichoke is a heart-healthy powerhouse that may help raise levels of HDL, according to research published in the journal International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition! With about 10.3 grams of fiber per each boiled head, this makes artichoke one of the highest fiber vegetables in the entire produce aisle.
Next time you’re out on the town for your favorite sushi roll, order the edamame appetizer first. Mild and flavor and delicious with a light dash of salt, these immature soybeans may be the secret to boosting your healthy cholesterol, finds an Advances in Therapy study. One serving also packs 17 grams of protein per cup!
Let’s open a bottle from the cellar and toast to good health, because a nightly glass of red wine may be the secret not only to staying young but also a key way to increase total HDL levels, according to a European Journal of Clinical Nutrition study. Do be mindful of the strength of your pour, however as a true glass is only considered 4 ounces.
Rich in omega-3 fatty acids and all-around delicious, walnuts have also been shown to improve the HDL-to-total cholesterol ratio, according to a study published in the American Diabetes Association’s peer-reviewed journal, Diabetes Care. This ratio is used by physicians to assess overall cardiovascular risk and can provide more information than just one value alone. A desirable ratio is anything below 5:1, but a ratio of 3.5:1 indicates very minimal cardiovascular risk.
Although this breakfast choice may not satisfy your kid (or your kid-at-heart), high fiber cereals are an easy way to improve your cholesterol profile. An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that high fiber oat cereals lower LDL particle number without decreasing HDL concentrations, thus improving your ratio and giving HDL levels a percentage increase. Look for a product with a minimal amount of sugar and at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. A great oat-based choice is Barbara’s Morning Oat Crunch, which has 5 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein per cup.
The Greeks had it right with this creamy and sumptuous delicacy. A Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases study confirmed that Mediterranean consumers of fermented dairy products had an overall higher diet quality and cardio-metabolic profile.
When it comes to purchasing yogurt, aim for varieties that are high in protein such as Greek yogurt, Icelandic Skyr, or German Quark. Skip unnecessary added sugars, which are linked to metabolic syndrome, by buying plain varieties.
Cheese lovers unite! The same study that linked fermented dairy with better diet quality also determined cheese consumption to be associated with a higher HDL. But, remember, quality is everything and fresh cheeses like mozzarella, feta, or Swiss are healthier choices than processed cheeses you can spray from a can.
Beans and legumes of all kinds are known to be an asset to a heart-healthy diet pattern because they’re rich in a type of fiber—soluble fiber—which helps to block cholesterol from being absorbed through the intestines into the blood stream. By increasing your intake of beans, like chickpeas, you can decrease LDL levels, which results in a higher percentage of HDL cholesterol. You can blend chickpeas with garlic, tahini, and lemon juice to make the perfect homemade hummus, or mix them with peanut butter and dark chocolate to make a decadent, high protein, edible cookie dough! Blogger Chocolate Covered Kate has a great recipe.
No, carbohydrates are not the enemy to fitness goals. Plus, when it comes to heart health, oatmeal is a humble workhorse. One of the highest fiber-per-dollar foods on the market, oatmeal is an inexpensive and hearty addition to any breakfast time routine. While not raising HDL levels directly, oatmeal lowers total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels even more, according to an American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine review, which in turn increases your HDL levels as a percentage of total cholesterol. Make weekend brunch fun for the whole family by serving up an oatmeal bar concept with a wide array of toppings and mix-ins such as chia seeds and raspberries.