You've probably heard that HDL cholesterol = good and LDL cholesterol = bad. So if you're trying to improve your heart health (or just keep your ticker in tip-top shape), you might be wondering what to eat to keep your HDL levels up.
Plenty of foods can help improve your cholesterol ratio and promote good heart health overall. Here's a look at what you definitely want to be eating more of.
The lowdown on HDL
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatlike substance found in your cells. Your liver makes some cholesterol, and you get more from animal food sources like meat and dairy.
Some cholesterol is essential to helping your body function properly, but too-high levels of cholesterol in your blood can up your risk for heart problems.
Cholesterol moves through your blood on special proteins called lipoproteins. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is a helpful lipoprotein that mops up cholesterol in your blood and brings it back to your liver, where it can be flushed from your body.
That's why HDL is often called "good" cholesterol: Having a lot of it can promote healthier cholesterol levels and help protect your heart. (Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, doesn't do this — it just builds up in your blood, leading to high blood cholesterol.)
How exactly can you get more HDL? Eating the right foods and limiting your saturated fat intake can help lower your levels of LDL. That can improve your overall ratio of HDL to LDL and reduce your risk for heart problems.
A simple blood test can tell you what your cholesterol levels are and whether you need to make changes to the way you're eating. (The American Heart Association recommends all adults get their cholesterol checked every 4 to 6 years.)
Healthy HDL levels are between 40 and 60 mg/dL, but if you want to be a heart health superstar, aim to get your number over 60.
What does a cholesterol-friendly diet look like? One key to improving your HDL-to-LDL ratio is limiting your intake of unhealthy fats, like saturated and trans fats. But eating the right foods can help too.
Here are 15 foods worth adding to your menu.
Oats are loaded with soluble fiber, which can help keep bad cholesterol from being absorbed into your bloodstream. Even better? Some of that soluble fiber comes in the form of beta glucan, a type of fiber tied to lower LDL cholesterol.
Getting 3 grams of beta glucan daily has been shown to improve heart health — and you can get about half that amount from 3/4 cup of dry oats.
Beans and legumes
Lentils and black beans and chickpeas — oh, my! Beans and legumes are another great source of cholesterol-friendly soluble fiber.
In fact, a review of 26 studies found that eating just 1/2 cup daily could help lower LDL cholesterol by an average of 6.6 mg/dL, improving your LDL-to-HDL ratio.
Consider using it as your go-to for cooking. Olive oil is packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
Research has shown that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in olive oil can boost important HDL cholesterol functions like sweeping excess cholesterol out of the heart's blood vessels, keeping them open.
An apple a day... you know the rest. But hey, it just might be true! The crunchy fruit is a top source of pectin, which can lower LDL cholesterol to improve your LDL-to-HDL ratio.
Apples are also loaded with polyphenols. And according to a 2013 study, those polyphenols could help keep your arteries from becoming clogged or inflamed by stopping LDL cholesterol from oxidizing.
Fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel and herring are brimming with omega-3 fatty acids. These fats don't directly raise HDL, but they can help lower your triglycerides, a type of unhealthy fat in your blood.
They improve your heart health in other ways, too, like lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk for dangerous blood clots.
The fruit serves up plenty of monounsaturated fats and fiber, both of which are keys for keeping your cholesterol levels healthy.
One study found that adults with higher body weights who ate an avocado each day lowered their LDL cholesterol levels more than those who skipped the creamy green fruit. More guac, anyone?
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and cranberries are chock-full of antioxidant compounds like anthocyanins, phenolic acids, stilbenes, tannins and carotenoids, which are linked to lower inflammation and healthier cholesterol levels.
Nuts like walnuts are a good source of polyunsaturated fats — heart-healthy fats that play a key role in improving your total cholesterol ratio. And if you're not a fan of fish, good news: Walnuts offer omega-3 fatty acids too.
Help yourself to two or three handfuls a day — according to a 2010 review of 25 studies, eating that amount could help lower your LDL cholesterol by as much as 10 points.
Like avocado and olive oil, almonds (and other nuts) are a good source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats that can improve your total cholesterol ratio.
They're also high in phytosterols, plant compounds that are structurally similar to cholesterol and help block cholesterol from being absorbed in your gut.
You'll reap the same benefits whether you nosh on whole almonds or almond butter.
The chewy whole grain is another great way to get your fill of beta glucan, the soluble fiber that can lower your LDL cholesterol.
Try it as an alternative to oats for a hearty breakfast porridge, throw it into a salad or use it to give extra body to bean and veggie soups.
These juicy little fruits pack a one-two punch for heart health. They contain antioxidant compounds and the heart-healthy fiber pectin, which help bring HDL cholesterol up and LDL cholesterol down.
Cocoa and dark chocolate
Nope, your eyes aren't tricking you. Both cocoa and dark chocolate contain compounds that can lower bad cholesterol and help you get to a healthier total cholesterol level overall.
How? It seems that both foods help prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing, which can up the risk for heart disease.
The key to reaping the benefits is enjoying cocoa and dark chocolate in a healthy context.
Instead of guzzling a sugary hot chocolate with whipped cream, stir cocoa powder into your morning oatmeal or yogurt. If opting for dark chocolate, make sure the cocoa content is at least 75% and stick to a 1-ounce portion.
According to a recent review of 46 studies, eating about 25 grams of soy protein per day can lower LDL cholesterol levels by 3 to 4%.
Just remember that not all soy foods are created equal. You'll do the most good for your heart by choosing minimally processed soy products — choose tofu, tempeh or miso over packaged soy burgers or deli slices.
Love sipping soy milk? Steer clear of added sugar by choosing one that's unsweetened.
You already knew kale was a superfood, but here's one more reason it's worth adding to your shopping list: Dark leafies can bind to bile acids, which could help your body flush out more bad cholesterol (and get your HDL-to-LDL ratio in a healthier place).
This benefit might come from lutein, an antioxidant that's been shown to prevent cholesterol from sticking to artery walls.
It's loaded with catechins, a family of antioxidants that have been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol and overall cholesterol concentration.
And the more you drink, the greater the benefits seem to be. A large, long-term study found that adults who sipped five cups of green tea daily were 26% less likely than non-tea drinkers to die of a heart attack or stroke.