When you think of cholesterol, you may think of “bad” or high cholesterol. However, there’s also a “good” type of cholesterol that your body needs. This is called high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.

Keep reading to learn more about HDL and what foods you should be eating to raise your HDL ratio in relation to total cholesterol.

HDL is the good kind of cholesterol and the kind you typically want, whereas low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the kind you want to keep in check.

HDL, LDL, and triglycerides — a type of fat carried in the blood — make up total cholesterol levels.

HDL is like a vacuum cleaner for cholesterol in the body. When it’s at healthy levels in your blood, it removes extra cholesterol and plaque buildup in your arteries and then sends it to your liver. Your liver expels it from your body. Ultimately, this helps reduce your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

Learn more about the differences between HDL and LDL cholesterol here.

The American Heart Association recommends getting a cholesterol blood test by age 20. It’s a good idea to talk with a healthcare professional about getting one sooner if you’re at risk of heart conditions or overweight or obesity.

Doctors measure your cholesterol levels in milligrams/deciliter (mg/dL). Below is a breakdown of what your HDL cholesterol results mean.

HDL levelMenWomenChildren
Good40 mg/dL or higher50 mg/dL or higher45 mg/dL or higher
High60 mg/dL or higher60 mg/dL or higher200 mg/dL or higher
Lowless than 40 mg/dLless than 50 mg/dLn/a

Learn more about your overall cholesterol levels here.

A bagel with cream cheese for breakfast, a piece of fried chicken for lunch, and a bowl of ice cream at night are not ideal for keeping your cholesterol in check. These are sources of saturated and trans fat. They can increase your LDL and total cholesterol levels.

How does food affect cholesterol?

The things that increase HDL are actually not food but several medical and environmental factors. Preventing or avoiding the following increases your HDL:

Some hormones, such as estrogen or thyroid hormone, increase HDL concentrations. Exercise and moderate alcohol consumption are associated with higher HDL, too, according to research.

The right food choices can lower your LDL levels, which improves your HDL to LDL ratio.

Learn more about your cholesterol ratio here.

The Mediterranean diet can be a good place to start. A 2020 study showed that, in people with risk factors for metabolic disease, following the Mediterranean diet effectively lowered overall blood cholesterol.

Olive oil

The type of heart-healthy fat found in olives and olive oil can lower the inflammatory impact of LDL cholesterol on your body, according to research published in 2019.

Use extra-virgin olive oil instead of other oils and fats when cooking at low to moderate temperatures, since extra-virgin olive oil breaks down at high temperatures. You can also use extra-virgin olive oil in salad dressings, sauces, and to flavor foods once you’ve cooked them.

Just be sure to use extra-virgin olive oil in moderation since it’s high in calories. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil as a single serving.

Whole grains

Whole grains, including bran, cereals, and brown or wild rice, may lower your LDL and total cholesterol. This in turn gives your HDL levels a percentage boost. That’s because these foods contain fiber — specifically soluble fiber, which is shown to help lower LDL.

Have at least two servings of whole grains per day. That could be as simple as a comforting bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, 100 percent whole grain bread at lunch, and a side of brown rice at dinner.

Beans and legumes

Like whole grains, beans and legumes are great sources of soluble fiber. You may wish to try black beans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, navy beans, lentils, and others.

Beans and legumes are great in side dishes, like in a Cajun corn and kidney bean salad, or in soup, like this Italian-style white bean and kale soup.

You can also whip up this spicy Southwestern black bean chili during the week for an easy family-friendly dinner.

High fiber fruit

Eating fruits with a lot of fiber, such as prunes, apples, and pears can help lower your overall cholesterol levels.

Slice them up and stir them into cereal or oatmeal, or throw them into your blender and create a delicious smoothie. They’re just as great plain, too, either as a midafternoon snack or an after-dinner treat.

Fatty fish

Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish, can lower your LDL levels. Look for fattier options, such as:

  • salmon
  • mackerel
  • albacore tuna
  • sardines
  • rainbow trout

Flax

Ground flaxseeds and flaxseed oil also contain omega-3 fatty acids. Many vegetarians use flaxseed as a source of omega-3 fatty acids because they’re one of the better plant-based sources of this heart-healthy fat.

Make sure to buy ground flaxseed. Whole flaxseeds are almost impossible for your body to break down. This means they pass through your body largely intact and never leave behind any of their nutrients.

Ground flaxseed can be sprinkled onto your morning cereal, oatmeal, salads, dips, or yogurt, or added to baked goods. Flaxseed oil is a welcome addition to salad dressings or smoothies.

Nuts

Nuts, including Brazil nuts, almonds, pistachios and others, as well as peanuts, which are technically legumes, are filled with heart-healthy fats. They’re also high in fiber and contain a substance called plant sterols. Plant sterols block the absorption of cholesterol in your body.

Just remember that if you’re watching your calories, keep your nut portions in check with a measuring cup or scale, since they’re high in calories.

Chia seeds

Chia seeds are a good source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and other healthy nutrients. Adding chia seeds to your diet may help lower LDL levels and decrease blood pressure.

Like flaxseeds, chia seeds are great when added to cereal, oatmeal, dips, salads, yogurt, or smoothies.

Unlike flaxseeds, however, chia seeds can develop a somewhat slimy texture when they’re wet. If that’s a problem for you, consume chia seeds immediately or try adding them to your baked goods in place of eggs.

Today, because they’re growing in popularity, chia seeds are available in many food products at the grocery store.

Avocado

Avocados contain folate and monounsaturated fat. This healthy type of fat helps maintain HDL levels and reduces your risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease. They’re also filled with fiber, which naturally helps keep cholesterol in check.

Add slices of avocado to salads, soups, chilis, or sandwiches. Guacamole is a great option, too. Just be sure to reach for low calorie dippers, like carrots, radishes, and tomatoes, instead of high calorie, high salt tortilla chips.

Soy

Soy-based products aren’t just for vegetarians. Incorporating this food into your diet is a great way to reduce your meat consumption and cholesterol levels. When people eat less meat, their LDL levels will most likely decrease, and their HDL levels will most likely increase.

Steamed, unsalted edamame makes a great appetizer. This edamame spread is a healthier dip option for a party or gathering.

Extra-firm tofu grills beautifully, and this tofu vegetable kebab recipe will please even your meat-loving friends.

Eating the right foods can help reduce your bad cholesterol and improve your good cholesterol, but it’s not the only thing you can be doing to reach your desired levels. Here are some other steps you can take:

Get moving

Daily exercise is important for your overall health and can even increase your HDL. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity per week.

Lose excess weight

Dietary changes and increasing activity levels can help in reaching and maintaining an optimal weight. In some instances, reducing any excess weight can help raise HDL and lower LDL cholesterol levels.

Analyze your genetics

Sometimes, despite all your efforts, you can still have changes in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Genetics can play a role in your cholesterol levels, so speak with your doctor about your personal risks and what you can do to address them.

Take care of your digestive system

Emerging research is finding that your gut flora or microbiome influences your cholesterol levels and heart disease risk. Adding probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and fermented foods to your daily diet can be helpful.

In addition to recommending lifestyle and dietary changes, your doctor may prescribe medications to help lower your cholesterol levels.

Some of the most common medications to treat high cholesterol include:

  • Statins. Statins decrease production of cholesterol in the liver. This lowers LDL levels but only slightly increases HDL levels.
  • Selective absorption cholesterol inhibitors. These medications reduce the amount of cholesterol the intestines absorb. They can have a moderate impact on HDL levels.
  • Fibrates. Fibrates help lower triglycerides, a type of fat, and increase HDL levels.
  • Niacin. Doctors prescribe these drugs to reduce LDL and triglyceride levels and boost HDL levels.
  • Biologics. Doctors typically prescribe biologics if statins and diet changes do not help lower cholesterol levels. This new type of treatment can prove costly, but it can be effective in reducing LDL levels.
  • Bile acid sequestrants. These medications have been shown to help lower LDL cholesterol. Some people may refer to these as bile acid resins.

Before you begin dramatically changing your diet or taking any supplements, talk with a healthcare professional.

Food is a first-line, all-natural way to deliver more heart-healthy vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to your body. However, certain foods and supplements are less healthful due to their possible interactions with medications or prescriptions.

So before you begin loading up on these foods and supplements to boost your HDL and lower your LDL numbers, talk with a healthcare professional. Together, you can strategize achievable, positive ways to get your cholesterol numbers headed in the right direction.