High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is often called the “good” cholesterol because it helps transport and remove other forms of cholesterol from the body. Higher levels of good cholesterol, along with lower levels of total cholesterol and “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.
The body makes all the cholesterol it needs, and most of the modifiable sources of cholesterol come from food. Therefore, a change in diet can help increase good cholesterol and decrease other forms of cholesterol. Other lifestyle modifications can support these efforts.
Here’s what good cholesterol is, how it differs from bad cholesterol, and foods that can help raise it.
What is good cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance called a lipid. The liver makes all the cholesterol the body needs. Inside the body, cholesterol travels through the blood on two different types of proteins called lipoproteins.
LDL cholesterol makes up the bulk of cholesterol in the body. It is sometimes referred to as bad cholesterol because very high levels of this substance circulating in the body can increase the risk of heart disease. In contrast, people sometimes refer to HDL cholesterol as the “good cholesterol” because high levels of this substance can reduce the risk of heart disease.
Why is it good?
HDL cholesterol is called good cholesterol because of the functions it performs in the body. As it circulates in the blood, it helps eliminate other forms of cholesterol by absorbing them and transporting them to the liver. The liver can then process the cholesterol for use or eliminate it from the body as waste. This process helps prevent extra cholesterol from attaching to the artery walls and turning into plaque. Plaque is a mixture of cholesterol and other fatty substances that stick to the walls of the arteries. Over time, it can build up and cause the opening of the arteries to narrow (atherosclerosis).
Atherosclerosis is a risk factor for serious complications. Narrowing of the arteries can lead to risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure. Also, narrow arteries can be more susceptible to blood clots, which can put a person at risk for serious events like a heart attack or stroke. The combination of lowering total cholesterol and maintaining high HDL cholesterol levels can help reduce this risk and prevent cardiovascular disease.
What is the difference with “bad” cholesterol?
The terms “good” and “bad” are useful in explaining the functions of cholesterol. Both types of cholesterol have a function in the body when balanced. Cholesterol helps the body make new cell membranes. It is also important for the production of vitamin D and certain hormones, such as sex hormones and the stress hormone cortisol. The liver also uses cholesterol to make bile, which digests fats. LDL cholesterol is bad because it builds up as plaque inside the arteries. It is therefore not necessary to add LDL cholesterol. A high LDL level puts a person at risk for atherosclerosis, a major risk factor for heart disease. On the other hand, a high level of good cholesterol can reduce the risk of heart disease.
What is good LDL cholesterol?
Cholesterol doesn’t have symptoms on its own, which is why it’s important to get regular cholesterol checks.
A lipid profile test can show levels of:
– total cholesterol
– triglycerides or fats in the blood
– LDL cholesterol
– HDL cholesterol
For HDL cholesterol, a higher number indicates a lower risk of heart disease. Low (unwanted) HDL cholesterol is anything below 40 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl). A level between 40 and 60 mg/dl is normal, while a level of 60 mg/dl or more indicates high HDL cholesterol (desirable).
List of foods that promote healthy cholesterol
Foods that can support healthy cholesterol levels are those that are:
– lower in saturated fat
– higher in unsaturated fats
– rich in heart-healthy fiber
High Fiber Foods
Fiber-rich foods are heart-healthy and can help manage cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber in the diet reduces the absorption of cholesterol and bile acids that the liver uses to make cholesterol.
Foods naturally high in fiber include:
– psyllium husk
– beans such as lentils, beans and peas
– whole grains
Choosing unsaturated fats can help prevent and manage high LDL cholesterol while raising HDL cholesterol.
Foods high in unsaturated fats include:
– the lawyer
– nuts and seeds
– vegetable oils such as olive oil and sunflower oil
– fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring.
Other foods to change
Also, a person may benefit from avoiding foods that raise bad cholesterol. It is better to choose foods low in:
– saturated fats
– trans fat
– added sugars
It’s also best to avoid trans fats and saturated fats such as those found in animal products, including:
– processed meats
– high-fat red meats
– high-fat dairy products such as cheese
– Tropical vegetable oils that are solid at room temperature may also be higher in saturated fat, such as coconut oil and palm oil.
Instead, opt for lean or low-fat products, such as:
– lean meats
– poultry without skin
– Whole grains
– Fruits and vegetables.
Other Tips for Raising “Good” Cholesterol
Although higher levels of HDL cholesterol are linked to a decrease in cardiovascular risk, clinical trials that increase HDL levels have not shown results in reducing this risk. It may be that the ratio of HDL cholesterol to LDL cholesterol is greater, because HDL cholesterol can only transport a certain amount of cholesterol to the liver. HDL cholesterol only carries about a third to a quarter of blood cholesterol.
This is why interventions for cholesterol problems usually involve methods aimed at lowering LDL cholesterol first. This can improve the balance between HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in the body.
The right strategies to improve cholesterol balance
– Exercising regularly: Physical activity can help raise good cholesterol and lower triglycerides in the blood.
– Maintain a moderate weight: Maintaining a moderate weight can help improve cholesterol levels and other modifiable risk factors for heart disease.
– Stop smoking: Smoking increases many risk factors for heart disease, such as damaged blood vessels, hardening of the arteries and lower HDL cholesterol.
– Limit alcohol intake: Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol can raise triglycerides and cholesterol. It is therefore necessary to try to drink moderately, consuming no more than 2 glasses per day for men and 1 glass per day for women. Drinking in moderation can also raise good HDL cholesterol.
Also, it can be important to find ways to manage stress. Too much stress can increase levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and increase LDL cholesterol levels.
Here are some activities to relieve stress:
– type breathing exercises rated “heart rancid”
– movement activities such as yoga or tai chi
– get enough sleep each night
The best treatment for lowering cholesterol levels involves a range of different methods, including lifestyle, physical activity, diet, and anti-stress practices. Remember, a doctor is the best person to talk to when determining the best way to lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol.