Foods You Should Be Eating to Boost HDL and Lower LDL Cholesterol

Some foods have fats that are bad for your cholesterol and best avoided by everyone (not just by those watching their cholesterol levels).

The American Heart Association recommends that everyone restrict trans and saturated fats. These include fried foods, processed foods with partially hydrogenated oils, and processed meats such as bacon. These fats raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or "bad" cholesterol, and lead to plaque buildup in the arteries.

person cutting eggs on toast with avocado

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But what about the so-called "healthy" fats? Is there really such a thing? In a word, absolutely. Heart-healthy superfoods, which are thought to protect against disease, can raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the "good" kind of cholesterol. They can also lower LDL, effectively protecting you from heart disease and stroke.

The food at the end of your fork is powerful. And avocado—the fatty, creamy fruit that makes a perfect salad or sandwich topping—is a potent HDL-boosting fat.

This article discusses why some foods, like avocado, are good for your cholesterol. It also gives examples of healthy foods to boost your HDL or lower LDL.

What Is HDL Cholesterol?

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is a protective form of cholesterol. It carries bad cholesterol away from the arteries and into the liver. There, it can be broken down and eliminated from the body.

Your risk of a heart attack or heart disease is lower when your HDL is high. That's about 60 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) or higher. When your HDL is low, your chances of having a heart attack or heart disease are increased. For women, that's less than 50 mg/dl and for men, less than 40 mg/dl.

Here are several types of foods you should consider eating more often to raise your HDL and lower your LDL.

Recap

HDL is considered "good" cholesterol because it carries "bad" LDL cholesterol away from the arteries. Some foods can help improve your health by increasing your HDL and lowering LDL.

Avocado

Avocados are an excellent source of monounsaturated fatty acids, a healthy type of fat that boosts HDL and lowers LDL. In a 2015 study, eating one avocado a day while following a moderate-fat diet was associated with a 13.5 mg/dL drop in LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Participants also improved several other blood measurements when they consumed an avocado a day. This included:

  • Total cholesterol, or the total amount in your blood, including HDL and LDL
  • Triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood
  • Small dense LDL, a specific type of LDL that increases your risk of plaque in the arteries
  • Non-HDL cholesterol, or your HDL number subtracted from total cholesterol

Preparation Tip

Avocados have 235 calories per cup (146 grams), so portion control is key. For a delicious "California-style" sandwich, try half of an avocado with lettuce, tomato, and onion in a medium-size, whole grain pita. Add a squeeze of lemon and one tablespoon of flavored hummus (horseradish, lemon, or garlic) for an added kick.

Antioxidant-Rich Foods

A 2016 study published in the journal Nutrients showed that an antioxidant-rich diet raised HDL levels in relation to triglycerides. Antioxidants are substances in food that may protect your cells from damage.

High antioxidant foods include:

  • Nuts
  • Dark chocolate
  • Berries
  • Beets
  • Purple cabbage
  • Red grapes
  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Red bell peppers

Deeply colored fruits and vegetables tend to be high in antioxidants.

Preparation Tip

Try making a smoothie for an HDL-boosting, antioxidant-rich breakfast. Some good ingredient choices include berries, kale or spinach, avocado, and non-dairy milk such as almond milk.

Niacin-Rich Foods

Niacin (vitamin B3) in certain doses (as a supplement) may raise HDL levels. Niacin is found in high concentrations in:

  • Crimini mushrooms
  • Chicken breast
  • Halibut
  • Tomato
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Enriched bread
  • Cereals

Preparation Tip

Sautéed crimini mushrooms are a delightful complement to any meal. You can also grill them and use them as a fantastic filler for chicken or seafood kabobs.

Oatmeal

Countless research studies have shown that regular consumption of oats helps reduce total cholesterol and LDL. In addition to those benefits, oatmeal does not lower your good HDL cholesterol.

Preparation Tip

Adding ground cinnamon and 1/2 an ounce of walnuts (seven shelled halves) makes an oatmeal breakfast even more heart-healthy.

Fatty Fish

A 2014 study found that a diet rich in foods, including fatty fish, increased the size of HDL particles. This may help improve cholesterol transport throughout the body.

Fatty fish are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fats. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week, especially varieties that contain omega-3 fats. These include:

  • Salmon
  • Trout
  • Herring

A serving of fish is considered 3.5 ounces cooked.

Preparation Tip

A chopped almond crust adds even more omega-3s to any fish meal.

Summary

Some foods can boost your HDL, or "good" cholesterol, or lower LDL, or "bad" cholesterol. HDL cholesterol carries LDL cholesterol away from your arteries and helps lower your risk of a heart attack.

Avocados have a healthy type of fat called monounsaturated fatty acids. These can help boost HDL and lower LDL.

Antioxidant-rich foods, like nuts and berries, have been found to raise HDL levels and protect cells from damage.

Fatty fish, like salmon and trout, have heart-healthy omega-3 fats that can help get rid of bad cholesterol.

Niacin-rich foods like crimini mushrooms may help to boost HDL. Oatmeal can help to reduce total cholesterol and bad LDL cholesterol.

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that dietary changes go hand in hand with lifestyle choices for healthy cholesterol levels. Aerobic exercise, weight loss, and avoiding smoking all contribute to higher HDL cholesterol levels. Remember that several small changes can add up to big results.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does avocado oil help lower bad cholesterol?

    Research is mixed on whether avocado oil helps lower bad cholesterol. One small human study found that replacing butter with avocado oil lowered total and LDL cholesterol after six days.However, other research has found that most of the avocado oil on the market is contaminated or spoiled.

  • How much cholesterol is in an avocado?

    Avocados have zero cholesterol. Hass avocados (Persea americana) are nutrient-dense, packed with fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin K, and a plethora of "good" monounsaturated fatty acids. Avocados are believed to improve cardiovascular health.

  • How long does it take for consumed foods to lower bad cholesterol?

    It may take at least five weeks for consumed foods to lower bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol). A 2015 study from Penn State University found that obese or overweight people had a 50 percent drop in LDL levels after following an avocado-rich, low-fat diet for five weeks.

    An earlier study from Mexico reported that a similar diet in healthy people with mild hypercholesterolemia reduced total cholesterol by 17 percent and LDL cholesterol by 22 percent after only seven days.

  • Are there supplements that raise HDL?

    Yes, niacin is a dietary supplement that raises HDL levels in the body. Like other dietary supplements, it shouldn't replace prescription medication. It may be wise to ask your healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement since everybody can react different to using them.

  • What foods are high in bad cholesterol?

    Foods that have high amounts of bad cholesterol include fast food (burgers and French fries), full-fat dairy products like milk and cheese, red meats such as beef and pork, and processed meat. Reducing frequent consumption of food that contains high amounts of LDL cholesterol and saturated fats can help lower your risk of heart disease.

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