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.
In fact, moderate alcohol consumption has actually been linked with higher levels of HDL cholesterol. (6) Moderate consumption for healthy adults is one alcoholic drink per day for women of all ages and men over 65 and up to two drinks per day for mean 65 and under. Organic red wine is a smart choice, but don’t start drinking just to improve HDL levels because overdoing does much more harm than good — both for cholesterol levels and your overall health.
If you’re getting worked up over high cholesterol, then start working out. Daily exercise can help raise your HDL cholesterol levels and reduce your LDL cholesterol, while protecting you from many health conditions. Begin by choosing an activity that sounds like fun to avoid “workout burn-out.” Consider jogging, brisk walking, cycling, tennis, swimming or hitting the gym. Find an exercise partner to make the activity more enjoyable and help you stay on track. And while exercise can lower your cholesterol, it can also reduce your stress and anxiety. So working up a sweat can also save you from sweating the small stuff.
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.
Trans fats are a byproduct of the chemical reaction that turns liquid vegetable oil into solid margarine or shortening and that prevents liquid vegetable oils from turning rancid. These fats have no nutritional value — and we know for certain they are bad for heart health. Trans fats increase LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels while reducing levels of HDL cholesterol.
Reduce the amount of sugar and flour in your diet. Recent evidence indicates that added sugar – in the form of table sugar (sucrose) or high-fructose corn syrup – is probably a greater contributor to heart disease than is consumption of saturated fat. This suggests that the inflammatory hypothesis may in fact have more validity than the conventional lipid hypothesis, although the debate is far from settled. As a general rule, Dr. Weil advises against consuming foods with added sugars, particularly soft drinks and highly processed snack foods, which can cause rapid spikes and dips in blood sugar levels. The result can be overeating, obesity and heart disease.
Ask for tomato sauce with your pasta if you want to keep your cholesterol under control. Tomatoes are a significant source of a plant compound called lycopene, which reduces levels of LDL cholesterol. Research shows that the body absorbs more lycopene if the tomatoes are processed or cooked, so drink tomato juice and add tomatoes to your minestrone soup as well.
How much do you know about your cholesterol? You probably know that there are two different kinds – high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is the “good” cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as the “bad” cholesterol. High HDL levels help carry cholesterol from your arteries to your liver and also possess antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, which are linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
Fiber is your friend when cholesterol is the enemy, so reach for foods that are full of soluble fiber. Just be aware that fiber comes in different forms, with one called soluble fiber and the other known as insoluble fiber. While both are good for your heart, it’s soluble fiber that’s great for your cholesterol. In addition to making you feel full, soluble fiber can actually reduce the amount of cholesterol your body absorbs. According to the Mayo Clinic, eating at least five to 10 grams of soluble fiber each day can lower both your LDL and total cholesterol levels. So better fill up your kitchen, along your body, with fiber-filled foods.
An easy way to make the switch from trans fats is by replacing them with unsaturated fats, which don’t increase your LDL cholesterol, according to WebMD. Unsaturated fats are found in olive oil, canola oil, vegetable and sunflower oils, as well as fish, nuts, seeds and avocados. Just as unsaturated fats are healthy choices, unsaturated fats are not. Be sure to limit your intake of unsaturated fats, which are found in fatty meats, cold cuts, whole milk, whole-milk cheeses and many store-bought baked goods and snacks. Instead, enjoy lean cuts of meat, skim milk, low-fat cheeses and yogurt, and wholesome snacks to trim down your cholesterol levels.
Who doesn't love avocados? They not only taste amazing but also can help lower your cholesterol. Avocados are high in healthy monounsaturated fat, which helps lower "bad" LDL cholesterol. They also contain fiber, antioxidants and phytosterols, such as beta-sitosterol, which have also been shown to lower cholesterol. Don't hog the entire bowl of guacamole, though! One serving is just a quarter of a Hass avocado, which delivers 57 calories. Spread a few slices of avocado on your sandwich instead of mayo, or dip some veggies into a bowl of fresh guacamole.
Resistance training is a form of physical activity that forces your muscles to contract, building up strength and endurance. Some research also shows that resistance training could have beneficial effects on heart health as well and may decrease total and LDL cholesterol. (31) Weight lifting and bodyweight exercises like squats or lunges are some examples of resistance training that you can add to your routine.
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
Filled with plant-based antioxidants and minerals, this protein-packed dairy alternative can help improve your lipid levels. That’s because it’s lower in saturated fat than other vegan swaps (ahem, coconut oil). Unsweetened versions cut back on sneaky sources of added sugar often found in beverages, so use it in your morning latte for a cholesterol-lowering caffeine boost.
Substantial evidence now shows that a low-fat diet often reduces — rather than increases — HDL levels. This result is not specifically caused by “not enough fat,” but rather, is caused by consuming too many carbohydrates. The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology have quietly stopped recommending low-fat diets for heart disease prevention. Indeed, it is low-carb diets — and not low-fat diets — which are associated with higher HDL levels.
Trans fats increase your LDL cholesterol, reduce your HDL levels and raise your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic conditions. Trans fats lurk in fried foods, stick margarine, cookies, crackers, cakes, pie crusts and frozen pizza. Today, some food manufacturers are removing them from their products, but the only way to tell if a product is trans fat-free is to read labels while you’re shopping. Avoid products that list “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients, since this is just a sneaky name for trans fats.
It’s harder to increase HDL or "good" cholesterol than it is to lower LDL or total cholesterol. It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of the variation in HDL from person to person is due to genetic factors. But the following steps have been shown to boost HDL—and they are worth taking because they also lower total cholesterol and help protect the heart in many ways beyond their effect on HDL.
Could one of your current prescriptions be a cause of your low HDL levels? Possibly! Medications such as anabolic steroids, beta blockers, benzodiazepines and progestins can depress HDL levels. If you take any of these medications, I suggest talking to your doctor and considering if there is anything you can do that could take the place of your current prescription.