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

Fried foods of all kinds, partially hydrogenated oils, and saturated fats (especially from processed meats) are cholesterol bombs that are best avoided (and not just by those watching their cholesterol levels).

The American Heart Association recommends that everyone restrict these foods, as they contain trans and saturated fats, the "bad" kinds that raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) 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. Just as there are options that raise your bad cholesterol, there are heart-healthy superfoods that naturally raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL)—the "good" kind of cholesterol—and lower LDL, effectively protecting you from heart disease and stroke.

The food at the end of your fork is powerful. And if you love avocado, the fatty, creamy fruit that makes a perfect salad or sandwich topping, you'll be happy to hear that it's a potent HDL-boosting fat.

What Is HDL Cholesterol?

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

When your HDL is high—60 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) or higher—your risk of heart attack or heart disease is lower. When your HDL is low—for women less than 50 mg/dl, for men less than 40 mg/dl—your chances of having a heart attack or heart disease are increased.

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

Avocado

Avocados are an excellent source of monounsaturated fatty acids, which boost HDL and lower LDL. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, eating one avocado a day while following a moderate-fat diet was associated with a 13.5 mg/dL drop in bad cholesterol, or LDL, levels.

Several other blood measurements were also improved in the participants who consumed an avocado a day, including total cholesterol, triglycerides, small dense LDL, non-HDL cholesterol, and others. 

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. High antioxidant foods include nuts, dark chocolate, berries, beets, purple cabbage, red grapes, kale, spinach, red bell peppers, and other deeply colored fruits and vegetables.

Preparation Tip

For an HDL-boosting, antioxidant-rich breakfast, try making a smoothie containing 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, and 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 aids in reducing total cholesterol and LDL ("bad" cholesterol), but does not lower your HDL cholesterol.

Preparation Tip

Adding ground cinnamon and 1/2 an ounce of walnuts (7 shelled halves) makes an oatmeal breakfast even more heart-healthy.

Fatty Fish

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

The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week, especially varieties that contain omega-3 fats, such as salmon, trout, and herring. A serving is considered 3.5 ounces cooked.

Preparation Tip

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

Frequently Asked Questions

Does avocado oil help lower bad cholesterol?

Less research is available on the health benefits of avocado oil. 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.

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

A 2015 study from Penn State University found that obese or overweight people had a 50% 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% and "bad" LDL cholesterol by 22% after only seven days.

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.

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