Nutritionist with plate of food

Whether or not your doctor wants you to improve your cholesterol, everyone should be focused on heart healthy living. Cholesterol is just one component of overall heart health, but it’s something at everyone should be thinking about.

In this post, we’re going to focus on improving a very specific type of cholesterol: HDL cholesterol (AKA “good” cholesterol). But luckily, all of these recommendations can help you improve overall health, too!

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body uses for hormone production, digestion and vitamin D synthesis. Our bodies make cholesterol, but we also get it from foods – usually animal-based foods (i.e. eggs, meat, dairy).

There are multiple types of cholesterol, and having too much or too little of each can increase your risk for coronary artery disease (1). Your doctor can check your cholesterol via a blood test that includes:

  • Total cholesterol
  • LDL “bad” cholesterol
  • HDL “good” cholesterol

As you may have guessed, you want to have less LDL bad cholesterol and have more HDL good cholesterol. Doing this will improve heart health!

How to Increase HDL Cholesterol

You can make lots of healthy dietary and behavioral changes to boost good cholesterol.

1. Stop smoking

If you smoke, stop. Smoking increases your risk of countless diseases but it also has a really bad effect on HDL good cholesterol. Not only can smoking decrease your good cholesterol, but it can take the good cholesterol and make it dangerous and disease-promoting in the body (2). Also, secondhand smoke affects HDL levels too.

2. Cook with healthy oils

In general, you want to replace unhealthy fats with healthy fats. Instead of cooking with butter, margarine or lard, cook with healthy oils:

  • Vegetable oil
  • Olive oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Canola oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Avocado oil

Pro tip: If the cooking fat is solid at room temperature, then it’s probably an unhealthy saturated fat. (Think butter, coconut oil and lard.) If it’s liquid at room temperature, it’s a healthy unsaturated fat.

3. Get enough exercise

Exercise and physical activity play a role in overall health, heart health, lowering bad cholesterol… but also possibly increasing good cholesterol (3).

Being a healthy weight is also important for managing heart health. Strive to get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. If you’re trying to lose weight, try to get at least 300 minutes of physical activity per week.

4. Replace butter (and other saturated fats) with avocado

Avocados are most notable for their healthy monounsaturated fats (MUFAs). MUFAs help increase good cholesterol in the body. Since avocadoes contain healthy fats, use avocado in place of butter (an unhealthy fat). You can switch out the butter with avocado seamlessly in many baked goods. Instead of buttered toast in the morning, slab on some avocado!

Avocado oil is a great option too! I personally love this brand.

5. Choose foods with omega-3 fatty acids

There are 3 types of omega-3 fatty acids to talk about when it comes to better cholesterol:

  • ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
  • DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)

EPA and DHA help to improve heart health biomarkers (one being HDL good cholesterol). They can also help reduce your risk of chronic disease, which is a huge plus! Sources of EPA and DHA (usually an animal-based source):

  • Trout
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Oysters

ALA is also heart healthy, but more research is needed to truly understand its specific effect on cholesterol. Sources of ALA (usually a plant-based source):

  • Walnuts
  • Soybeans
  • Crush flaxseed or flaxseed oil (this flaxseed oil is my pick)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Canola oil
  • Chia seeds

6. Replace meat with fatty fish (at least 2 times per week)

It’s recommended that Americans consume 2 servings of fish per week. Try to include healthy fatty fish (like the ones from the list above) to get more omega-3s and better cholesterol numbers. So instead of a beef burger, try a salmon burger!

7. When eating beef, choose grass fed

Beef itself doesn’t contain many heart healthy omega-3s, but grass fed beef does contain more than conventional beef. Choose grass fed more often since it has a healthier nutrient profile. Grass fed beef tends to have less unhealthy saturated fat and more healthy unsaturated fat.

The Bottom Line to Boost HDL Cholesterol

HDL cholesterol is just one part of the heart healthy regimen. For a more complete heart healthy plan, follow these steps:

  1. Maintain a healthy weight.
  2. Get regular exercise.
  3. Eat a heart healthy diet.
  4. Eat less unhealthy fats from butter, full fat dairy, red meat, processed foods and fried foods.
  5. Eat more healthy fats from oils, nuts, seeds, legumes, avocado and fatty fish.
  6. Stop smoking.
  7. For an in-depth action plan on improving heart heath, check out this book written by a registered dietitian!

Making these lifelong changes can help boost good cholesterol, lower bad cholesterol, protect your heart and promote overall health!