How to Raise Your Good Cholesterol

Sometimes, high cholesterol can be a good thing.

Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.N,
December 21, 2010
Episode #119

When people pay attention to their cholesterol levels, they’re usually focused on trying to lower them. But lower isn’t always better. Your total cholesterol level includes several different types of cholesterol.

What is HDL Cholesterol?

One type called high-density lipoproteins, or HDL, actually protects you against heart disease by carrying excess cholesterol back to your liver. That’s why you’ll often see it referred to as “good” cholesterol.   In general, higher levels of HDL cholesterol are a good thing. And what you eat can help improve your HDL levels.

(For more on the different types of cholesterol and what you test results may say about your health, see the House Call Doctor’s article “Should You Be Worried About Your Cholesterol Levels?”)

How to Raise Your Good Cholesterol

One way is to eat a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates. The only problem is that you’ll also end up increasing your LDL cholesterol and your triglycerides. Any benefit you might get from higher HDL is cancelled out by increasing these other risk factors.

For this and lots of other reason, I suggest you limit your intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates like white bread. You don’t have to go low carb. Just eat most of your carbohydrates in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

How Fats Affect your Cholesterol Levels

The best advice I can give you is to is to avoid very low-fat diets.

The fat in your diet—both the type and the amount—has a big impact on your cholesterol levels but it’s tricky. Diets high in polyunsaturated fat, which is found in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils, tend to lower both types of cholesterol, both HDL and LDL. Diets high in saturated fat, on the other hand, which is found in meat, dairy products, coconut and palm oils tend to raise both types of cholesterol—also a mixed bag.

The best advice I can give you is to is to avoid very low-fat diets because they don’t really move anything in the right direction. As far as your cholesterol profile goes, a diet that’s a little bit higher in fat is probably a better choice than one that’s high in carbohydrates. And there appears to be some advantages to including both saturated and unsaturated fats in your diet. In other words, there’s room for both peanut butter and cheese!

Whatever you do, however, continue to be vigilant about avoiding foods made with partially hydrogenated oils. These are the dreaded trans fats, of course, and among their many sins is a tendency to lower those good HDL cholesterol levels and raise the bad LDL levels.

Other Foods that Raise HDL Cholesterol

Foods that are high in soluble fiber, such as flax seed, apples, oranges, and soybeans may help boost your HDL levels. Having a glass of wine with dinner appears to help as well.

Olive oil and fish are often cited as foods that help raise HDL levels. However the actual evidence on in this is somewhat weak. But because olive oil and fish oil both have other well-documented benefits, particularly for heart health, I think it’s a great idea to include them in your diet anyway.

A Mediterranean Diet May Boost HDL Cholesterol

So, let’s review what we have so far:

  • Avoid refined carbohydrates and trans fats

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables

  • Eat whole grains in moderation

  • Don’t avoid fat

  • Eat fish, nuts, olives, and seeds

  • Enjoy alcohol in moderation

If all of that sounds kind of familiar, you may be remembering my article on the Mediterranean Diet, which is essentially what I’ve just described. And, in fact, the Mediterranean Diet pattern has been found to raise HDL levels and otherwise positively affect risk factors for heart disease.

Other Ways to Raise HDL Cholesterol

Aside from diet, there are a few other things you can do to positively affect your HDL levels.

Be a woman. Women tend to have higher HDL cholesterol levels than men, especially before menopause.  Of course recent advances in medical technology notwithstanding, there’s probably only so far you’re willing to go in order to boost your HDL levels. So, let’s focus on things that are a little easier for you to change.

Maintain a healthy weight. Higher body weights are associated with lower HDL levels, and vice versa. Being able to zip up that prom dress or tuxedo 20, 30, or even 40 years later is more than class reunion vanity—it’s a prescription for a long and healthy life. Quick tip: If you are actively losing weight, you may see your HDL levels decline but once you stabilize at your goal weight, your HDL should rebound to a higher, healthier, level.   Find the diet that’s best for you here.

Work out.   Engaging in moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise will raise your HDL levels, especially if they’re on the low side. If you need help getting motivated, look no further than Get Fit Guy’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Slim Down and Shape Up.

Live a Healthy Lifestyle and Don’t Worry

Honestly, the best way to get healthy HDL cholesterol levels is just to eat right and get some exercise. When you live a healthy lifestyle, HDL levels tend to take care of themselves.

If you have a suggestion for a future show topic or would like to find out about having me speak at your conference or event, send an email to nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com.

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Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me! 


Response of blood lipids to exercise training

Dietary influence on serum cholesterol ratios

Influence of carbohydrates on HDL and LDL

Effect of weight loss on HDL

Cholesterol image courtesy of Shutterstock