You’ve probably heard it is important to keep your cholesterol levels low, but if you want to protect yourself against heart disease you may be barking up the wrong tree.
Total cholesterol is actually a fairly poor predictor of heart disease, and LDL “bad” cholesterol is only slightly better. Instead, the ratio of “good” HDL cholesterol to LDL is the most reliable indicator of cardiovascular health. That means higher HDL is as important (if not more so) than lower LDL for protecting against heart disease and atherosclerosis.
That’s right, you want higher HDL cholesterol.
HDL cholesterol scavenges the blood and removes dangerous cholesterol deposits from the arteries. An HDL level above 60 mg/dL is considered protective against heart disease whereas HDL below 40 mg/dL is a risk, even if your LDL is fairly low.
Last time I had my HDL tested it was above 80 mg/dL.
While drugs like statins are not very effective in raising HDL cholesterol, lifestyle modifications can raise HDL substantially.
10 Ways to raise your HDL cholesterol
- Exercise Exercise can substantially increase HDL cholesterol while lowering LDL cholesterol.
- Lose weight Weight loss is almost always accompanied by improved cholesterol numbers, including increased HDL.
- Don’t smoke Smoking has been shown to lower HDL while raising LDL cholesterol.
- Avoid trans fat Processed, trans fats simultaneously raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol, vastly increasing your risk of heart disease (similar to smoking). Margarin, shortening and other fake fats should always be avoided.
- Avoid low-fat diets Low-fat diets lower both LDL and HDL cholesterol and are not effective at reducing heart disease.
- Eat olive oil and avocados Monounsaturated fats such as those found in olive oil and avocados raise HDL and lower LDL.
- Eat fish Fish (especially fatty fish like salmon and sardines) contain omega-3 fats that raise HDL and lower LDL.
- Avoid refined carbohydrates Refined carbohydrates negatively impact HDL and raise LDL (bad news).
- Eat whole grains Whole, intact grains contain soluble fiber and niacin, both of which raise HDL and may lower LDL.
- Drink alcohol 1-2 drinks per day can be as effective as exercise in raising HDL levels. However too much alcohol raises risk for cancer and addiction.
For more information on cholesterol check out my video Cholesterol Explained.
Are you concerned about HDL? Is your doctor?
Originally published Sept 14, 2009.