You've probably heard that fried foods of all kinds, hydrogenated oils, and full-fat dairy products are cholesterol bombs that are best avoided (and not just by those watching their cholesterol levels). The American Heart Association recommends that everyone restrict these foods, as they contain trans and saturated fats, the "bad" kind that raises LDL cholesterol and leads to plaque buildup in the arteries.
But what about the so-called "healthy" fats? Is there really such a thing?
Healthy Fats That Naturally Raise HDL
In a word, absolutely. Just as there are options that raise your bad cholesterol, there are heart-healthy superfoods that naturally raise HDL (the "good" kind of cholesterol), and lower LDL, effectively protecting you from heart disease and stroke.
The food at the end of your fork is powerful. And if you love avocado, the fatty, creamy fruit that makes a perfect salad or sandwich topping, you'll be happy to hear that it's a potent HDL-boosting fat.
What Is HDL Cholesterol?
HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is a protective form of cholesterol that carries bad cholesterol away from the arteries and into the liver where it can be broken down and eliminated from the body.
When your HDL is high (60 mg/dl or higher is considered desirable for both men and women), your risk of heart attack or heart disease is lower. When your HDL is low (for women less than 50 mg/dl, for men less than 40 mg/dl), your chances of having a heart attack or heart disease are increased.
Foods to Eat for Increased HDL and Lowered LDL
Here are several types of food you should consider eating more often.
Avocados are an excellent source of monounsaturated fatty acids, which boost HDL and lower LDL. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, eating one avocado a day while following a moderate-fat diet was associated with a 13.5 mg/dL drop in bad cholesterol, or LDL, levels. Several other blood measurements were also improved in the participants who consumed an avocado a day, including total cholesterol, triglycerides, small dense LDL, non-HDL cholesterol, and others.
Preparation Tip: Avocados have 235 calories per cup (146 g), so portion control is key. For a delicious "California-style" sandwich, try ½ of an avocado with lettuce, tomato, and onion in a medium-size, whole grain pita. Add a squeeze of lemon and one tablespoon of flavored hummus (horseradish, lemon, or garlic) for an added kick.
A 2016 study published in the journal Nutrients showed that an antioxidant-rich diet raised HDL levels in relation to triglycerides. High antioxidant foods include dark chocolate, berries, beets, purple cabbage, red grapes, kale, spinach, red bell peppers, and other deeply colored fruits and vegetables.
Preparation Tip: For an HDL-boosting, antioxidant-rich breakfast, try making a smoothie containing berries, kale or spinach, avocado, and non-dairy milk such as almond milk.
Niacin (vitamin B3) is believed to block cholesterol production in the body. Although niacin in prescription supplement form appears to be most effective in increasing HDL, it may have side effects such as flushing, itching, and headache, so you may want to consider adding niacin-containing foods to your diet first. Niacin is found in high concentrations in crimini mushrooms, chicken breast, halibut, tomato, romaine lettuce, enriched bread, and cereals.
Preparation Tip: Sautéed crimini mushrooms are a delightful complement to any meal. You can also grill them and use as a fantastic filler for chicken or seafood kabobs.
Countless research studies have shown that regular consumption of oats aids in reducing total cholesterol and LDL ("bad" cholesterol), but does not lower your HDL cholesterol.
Preparation Tip: Adding ground cinnamon and ½ an ounce of walnuts (7 shelled halves) makes an oatmeal breakfast even more heart-healthy.
A 2014 study published in the journal PLoS One found that a diet rich in foods including fish, especially fatty fish, increased the size of HDL particles, which may help improve cholesterol transport throughout the body. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week, especially varieties that contain omega-3 fats, such as salmon, trout, and herring. A serving is considered 3.5 ounces cooked.
Preparation Tip: A chopped almond crust adds, even more, omega-3s to any fish meal.
Keep in mind that dietary changes go hand in hand with lifestyle choices for healthy cholesterol levels. Aerobic exercise, weight loss, and avoiding smoking all contribute to higher HDL cholesterol levels.Remember that several small changes can add up to big results.