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.
However, although low levels of HDL predict increased cardiovascular risk, particularly in healthy individuals with no history of cardiovascular events, the relationship between HDL and CHD risk is complex, with HDL-C and cardiovascular disease having a nonlinear relationship. For example, research found that HDL levels above approximately 60 mg/dL showed no further improvement in prognosis, and the EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition)-Norfolk and IDEAL (Incremental Decrease in End Points through Aggressive Lipid Lowering) studies showed that very high levels of HDL may actually be associated with an increased risk of atherosclerotic disease. [5, 6, 2]
But keep in mind that not all cholesterol is created equally. LDL cholesterol, also known as “bad cholesterol,” is the form that can build up on the artery walls and increase your risk of heart disease. HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, is often dubbed “good cholesterol” because it travels through the bloodstream, removing harmful cholesterol from the arteries to help enhance heart health.
The lipid profile blood test reports the levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the bloodstream. Healthcare organizations have established a set range for total, bad LDL and good HDL cholesterol as well as triglycerides, but the most important thing to consider when looking for how to lower cholesterol naturally is the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol, which should be around 2:1. (1, 2)
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Dr. Pacold notes that exercise has a greater effect on raising HDL cholesterol, which protects you from heart disease, than on lowering the LDL cholesterol that puts you at risk. It's good to know that even if you don’t see the numbers changing right away, regular exercise strengthens your heart and protects you from heart disease. If you’re not a big fan of exercise and not in great shape to begin with, remember that all you need to do to start reaping the heart-healthy benefits of exercise is 30 minutes of walking at a moderate pace every day. If you have a heart condition, talk with your doctor first about how much exertion is right for you when you begin, and then work your way up to your fitness goals for heart health.
Foods like oatmeal, apples, prunes, and beans are high in soluble fiber, which keeps your body from absorbing cholesterol. Research shows that people who ate 5 to 10 more grams of it each day saw a drop in their LDL. Eating more fiber also makes you feel full, so you won’t crave snacks as much. But beware: Too much fiber at one time can cause abdominal cramps or bloating. Increase your intake slowly.
Nordestgaard BG, Langsted A, Mora S, et al. Fasting is not routinely required for determination of a lipid profile: clinical and laboratory implications including flagging at desirable concentration cut-points-a joint consensus statement from the European Atherosclerosis Society and European Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine. Eur Heart J. 2016 Jul 1. 37 (25):1944-58. [Medline]. [Full Text].
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.
Hyperalphalipoproteinemia (HALP) may be familial, including primary (without CETP deficiency) and otherwise (with CETP deficiency), or secondary. [15] Familial HALP (aside from the primary form) is a well-documented genetic form of hypercholesterolemia characterized by a deficiency of CETP, a key protein in the reverse cholesterol transport (RCT) system that facilitates the transfer of cholesteryl esters from high-density lipoprotein (HDL) to beta lipoproteins. Primary HALP is a term used for familial elevated HDL cholesterol levels that are not due to CETP deficiency and for which the cause is unknown. Secondary HALP is due to environmental factors or medications.
If you’re one of the 73.5 million Americans who have unhealthy cholesterol levels, heart-healthy lifestyle changes are important ways to improve your cholesterol and prevent it from getting progressively worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fewer than half of people with high LDL cholesterol (the type of cholesterol that puts you at risk for heart disease) are getting treated, and not even one in three have their high cholesterol under control.
Many people don't like to hear it, but regular aerobic exercise (any exercise, such as walking, jogging or bike riding, that raises your heart rate for 20 to 30 minutes at a time) may be the most effective way to increase HDL levels. Recent evidence suggests that the duration of exercise, rather than the intensity, is the more important factor in raising HDL cholesterol. But any aerobic exercise helps.
Population studies have shown that low levels of HDL cholesterol—less than 40 mg/dL for men and less than 50 mg/dL for women—increase the overall risk of coronary artery disease (CAD) and heart attacks. A person whose HDL level is lower than 35 mg/dL has eight times the risk of CAD as someone with an HDL level of 65 mg/dL. Experts have long thought that boosting HDL levels promotes heart health. But while low HDL is a strong and well-established risk factor for heart disease, the evidence for raising HDL remains uncertain. But experts agree that taking these heart healthy steps are still worthwhile.
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!
Once you control your protein and starch portions, you can fill the rest of your plate with heart-healthy fruits and vegetables. Aim for four to five servings of vegetables and four to five servings of fruits every day. Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals and are great sources of fiber, which helps fill you up, control your weight, and improve cholesterol levels.
Niacin is a B vitamin that your body uses to turn food into energy. It also helps keep your digestive system, nervous system, skin, hair and eyes healthy. Most people get enough niacin or B3 from their diets, but niacin is often taken in prescription-strength doses to treat low HDL levels. Niacin supplementation can can raise HDL cholesterol by more than 30 percent. (7)
George T Griffing, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, International Society for Clinical Densitometry, Southern Society for Clinical Investigation, American College of Medical Practice Executives, American Association for Physician Leadership, American College of Physicians, American Diabetes Association, American Federation for Medical Research, American Heart Association, Central Society for Clinical and Translational Research, Endocrine Society

Plain and simple, exercise raises HDL levels. “We looked at doctors and others who ran the Boston Marathon,” notes Castelli. “While the average male HDL is 45, men who ran the marathon ranged around 55.” One Georgetown University study found increased HDL in those who ran seven miles a week or took part in four moderate 30-minute sessions of any aerobic activity.
More long-term studies are needed in order to determine whether or not it is the actual loss of weight or the diet and exercise that go along with it that causes the reduction in LDL levels. It is also possible that LDL cholesterol can eventually return to original levels, even when weight loss is maintained. Nonetheless, the prospect makes weight maintenance and good nutrition worthy goals to have.
There's no magical food to keep your heart healthy, but there are a lot of foods that can help—including these foods that help lower your cholesterol. In addition to cutting back on foods that can raise total cholesterol and getting enough exercise, make sure to eat more of these foods that improve your cholesterol profile by raising "good" HDL and/or lowering "bad" LDL cholesterol. These foods include some old standbys, such as oatmeal and fruit, plus a few surprising foods that can help lower cholesterol to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.
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