If you want to increase the benefits of the fats you eat, work out before you chow down. A study at the University of Missouri found that regular exercise prior to high-fat meals produces a large hike in HDL. I’m not suggesting that your excuse for indulging in high-fat meals ought to be a pre-meal workout, merely that exercise before a meal works to your heart’s advantage.
Unsaturated fats are considered the healthiest fats because they improve cholesterol, help reduce inflammation (a risk factor for heart disease), and help decrease the overall risk of developing heart disease. The main source of unsaturated fats is plant-based foods. These fats are usually liquid at room temperature. There are two types of unsaturated fat: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Heart-healthy eating. A heart-healthy eating plan limits the amount of saturated and trans fats that you eat. It recommends that you eat and drink only enough calories to stay at a healthy weight and avoid weight gain. It encourages you to choose a variety of nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Examples of eating plans that can lower your cholesterol include the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes diet and the DASH eating plan.
A study published in January 2016 in the journal Nutrients found that an antioxidant-rich diet raises HDL cholesterol levels in relation to triglycerides, and might be associated with a reduced risk of stroke, heart failure, and inflammatory biomarkers. Antioxidant-rich foods include dark chocolate, berries, avocado, nuts, kale, beets, and spinach.
Large doses of vitamin B3, or niacin, have been found to raise HDL as much as 20 percent and are often prescribed for people with cholesterol problems. But keep in mind that a daily multivitamin contains all the niacin most people need. Supplementing beyond that can have a variety of side effects, including facial flushing, heartburn and even liver damage, so don’t try it without consulting a doctor.
HDL cholesterol carries excess cholesterol to your liver so it doesn’t build up in your bloodstream. But when LDL cholesterol moves cholesterol throughout your body, it can build up in the walls of the arteries, making them hard and narrow. If you have too little HDL cholesterol and too much LDL, you may be diagnosed with high cholesterol, a condition that can lead to atherosclerosis, angina (often experienced as chest pain), heart attack, and stroke.
According to a study published in November 2015 in the journal Nature, a diet high in carbohydrates — like added sugar, white bread, cookies, and cakes — reduces HDL cholesterol levels, increasing the risk for metabolic disorders. Refined carbohydrates found in foods labeled “low-fat” make these just as bad as full-fat foods because the fat is often replaced with carbohydrates from added sugar and other starches.
HDL is plasma’s smallest and densest lipoprotein. The major apolipoproteins of HDL are apo A-I and apo A-II, the alpha lipoproteins. An elevated concentration of apo A-I and apo A-II, known as hyperalphalipoproteinemia (HALP), is associated with a lower risk of CHD. Conversely, hypoalphalipoproteinemia increases the chances of CHD development.  HALP generally does not produce any unusual clinical features (although corneal opacity has been associated with the condition), and it should not be considered a disease entity but rather a fortuitous condition that can increase longevity because of the related decrease in CHD incidence. 
Could one of your current prescriptions be a cause of your low HDL levels? Possibly! Medications such as anabolic steroids, beta blockers, benzodiazepines and progestins can depress HDL levels. If you take any of these medications, I suggest talking to your doctor and considering if there is anything you can do that could take the place of your current prescription.
If you don’t already dust your cappuccino with cinnamon or shake pepper on your pasta, listen up: Spices like garlic, curcumin, ginger, black pepper, coriander, and cinnamon do more than flavor your food, they can also improve cholesterol. Research shows that eating a half to one clove of garlic each day could lower cholesterol up to 9%. Bonus: Adding extra seasoning to your food also reduces your appetite, so it’s easier to drop excess pounds, Steinbaum says.
Too much cholesterol in the blood builds up on artery walls causing hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). The buildup of cholesterol narrows arteries, slowing or blocking the flow of oxygen-carrying blood to the heart, which can manifest as chest pain. If blood flow to the heart is cut off because of clogged arteries, the result is damage to the heart muscle – a heart attack.
While cholesterol is normally kept in balance, an unhealthy diet high in hydrogenated fats and refined carbohydrates can disrupt this delicate balance, leading to increased cholesterol levels. This imbalance is manifested in elevated LDL (bad cholesterol) and low HDL (good cholesterol), which increases the risk of heart attack or stroke. Other causes can include physical inactivity, diabetes, stress and hypothyroidism.
Reduce the amount of sugar and flour in your diet. Recent evidence indicates that added sugar – in the form of table sugar (sucrose) or high-fructose corn syrup – is probably a greater contributor to heart disease than is consumption of saturated fat. This suggests that the inflammatory hypothesis may in fact have more validity than the conventional lipid hypothesis, although the debate is far from settled. As a general rule, Dr. Weil advises against consuming foods with added sugars, particularly soft drinks and highly processed snack foods, which can cause rapid spikes and dips in blood sugar levels. The result can be overeating, obesity and heart disease.
Total cholesterol is a measure of the total amount of cholesterol in your blood, which includes HDL, LDL and triglycerides. However, total cholesterol is mainly made up of LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Having high levels of low-density lipoprotein or LDL can lead to plaque buildup in your arteries, increasing your likelihood for heart disease and stroke. LDL also raises your risk for a condition called peripheral artery disease, which can develop when plaque buildup narrows an artery supplying blood to the legs. The good news is that the higher your HDL level, the lower your body’s LDL level or “bad” cholesterol.
Perhaps most disappointing of all, a new class of drugs (the so-called CETP-inhibitors), which several pharmaceutical companies have been enthusiastically developing for several years to raise HDL levels, has become a great disappointment. While these drugs do indeed increase HDL levels, they have not demonstrated an ability to improve cardiac risk — and on the contrary, studies appear to show a worsening in cardiac risk with some of these drugs. It is unclear today whether any CETP-inhibitors will ever reach the market.
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.
Nuts are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, so almonds, walnuts, or pistachios can help reduce your LDL levels. Try sprinkling them on your salad, or eat them right out of hand as a snack. Just be sure to choose the low-salt option, and keep it to about 1.5 ounces a day -- nuts are also high in calories. For almonds, that’s about 30 almonds or 1/3 cup.
So if there is a cholesterol that is actually good for us, how can we naturally increase its levels? The short answer is lifestyle. Your lifestyle actually has the single greatest impact on your HDL cholesterol level. So making changes to daily and completely controllable habits like diet and exercise can equate to healthier HDL cholesterol levels, which can lower your risk for life-threatening health issues.
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.
Substantial evidence now shows that a low-fat diet often reduces — rather than increases — HDL levels. This result is not specifically caused by “not enough fat,” but rather, is caused by consuming too many carbohydrates. The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology have quietly stopped recommending low-fat diets for heart disease prevention. Indeed, it is low-carb diets — and not low-fat diets — which are associated with higher HDL levels.
Fish can be fatty or lean, but it’s still low in saturated fat. Eat at least 8 ounces of non-fried fish each week, which may be divided over two 3.5- to 4-ounce servings. Choose oily fish such as salmon, trout and herring, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Prepare fish baked, broiled, grilled or boiled rather than breaded and fried, and without added salt, saturated fat or trans fat. Non-fried fish and shellfish, such as shrimp, crab and lobster, are low in saturated fat and are a healthy alternative to many cuts of meat and poultry.
Plasma HDL is a small, spherical, dense lipid-protein complex that is half lipid and half protein. The lipid component consists of phospholipids, free cholesterol, cholesteryl esters, and triglycerides. The protein component includes apo A-I (molecular weight, 28,000) and apo A-II (molecular weight, 17,000). Other minor, but important, proteins are apo E and apo C, including apo C-I, apo C-II, and apo C-III.
Can my HDL be too high? It is well known that not all cholesterol is bad for you. Of HDL and LDL cholesterol, HDL packs some great benefits. This MNT Knowledge Center article examines when high HDL cholesterol is good, and whether higher is always better? Learn how to find the right balance along with some healthful ways to achieve high HDL. Read now
Flavor foods with herbs and spices whenever you can. It’ll help you cut back on condiments high in saturated fat while maximizing flavor. Spices and herbs also pack antioxidants, which can help improve cholesterol levels when combined with veggies. Ones we love: Basil, cilantro, rosemary, sage, ginger, garlic, tarragon, black and red chili pepper, mint, and oregano.