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High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is sometimes known as “good” cholesterol.
Having high HDL levels helps carry cholesterol from the arteries to the liver, where the body can use it or excrete it.
Most health experts recommend minimum blood levels of 40 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) in men and 50 mg/dl in women (3).
While genetics definitely play a role, there are several other factors that affect HDL levels.
Here are nine healthful ways to raise HDL cholesterol.
Olive oil is one of the most healthful fats around.
A large analysis of 42 studies with more than 800,000 participants found that olive oil was the only source of monounsaturated fat that seemed to reduce heart disease risk (4).
Extra virgin olive oil has more polyphenols than processed olive oils, although the amount can still vary among different types and brands.
One study gave 200 healthy young males about 2 tablespoons (tbsp) (25 milliliters [ml]) of different olive oils per day for 3 weeks.
The researchers found that participants’ HDL levels increased significantly more after they consumed the olive oil with the highest polyphenol content (6).
In another study, when 62 older adults consumed about 4 tbsp (50 ml) of high polyphenol extra virgin olive oil every day for 6 weeks, their HDL cholesterol increased (7).
Whenever possible, select high quality, certified extra virgin olive oils, which tend to be highest in polyphenols.
Bottom line: Extra virgin olive oil with a high polyphenol content may increase HDL levels in healthy people, older adults, and individuals with high cholesterol. Extra virgin olive oil is available to purchase online.
Low carb and ketogenic diets provide a number of health benefits, including weight loss and reduced blood sugar levels.
Research also shows that they can increase HDL cholesterol in people who tend to have lower levels.
In one study, researchers split people with type 2 diabetes into two groups. One group followed a diet containing fewer than 50 grams (g) of carbs per day. The other group followed a high carb diet.
Although both groups lost weight, the low carb group’s HDL cholesterol increased almost twice as much as the high carb group’s did (10).
In another study, people with obesity who followed a low carb diet experienced an increase in HDL cholesterol of 5 mg/dl overall.
On the other hand, in the same study, the participants who ate a low fat, high carb diet showed a decrease in HDL cholesterol (13).
This response may partially be because people with low carb diets typically eat higher levels of fat.
One study in women with overweight found that diets high in meat and cheese increased HDL levels by 5–8%, compared with a higher carb diet (14).
It is important to note that the Danish Dairy Research Foundation funded this study, which could have influenced study results.
What’s more, these studies demonstrate that in addition to raising HDL cholesterol, very-low-carb diets may decrease triglycerides and improve several other risk factors for heart disease.
Bottom line: Low carb and ketogenic diets typically increase HDL cholesterol levels in people with diabetes and obesity.
Being physically active is important for heart health.
Review studies also say that exercise can boost the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of HDL cholesterol (18).
The biggest increases in HDL typically occur with high intensity exercise.
One small study followed females with polycystic ovary syndrome, which can raise the risk of insulin resistance. The study required them to perform high intensity exercise three times per week.
The exercise led to an increase in HDL cholesterol after 10 weeks. The participants also showed improvements in other health markers, including decreased insulin resistance and improved arterial function (17).
Even lower intensity exercise seems to increase HDL’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacities, though it is not clear whether exercise volume or exercise intensity makes the most difference (19).
Overall, high intensity exercise such as high intensity interval training and high intensity circuit training may boost HDL cholesterol levels the most.
Bottom line: Exercising several times per week can help raise HDL cholesterol and enhance its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. High intensity forms of exercise may be especially effective.
Studies have shown that coconut oil may reduce appetite, increase metabolic rate, and help protect brain health, among other benefits.
Some people may be concerned about coconut oil’s effects on heart health due to its high saturated fat content. However, it appears that coconut oil is actually quite heart-healthy.
Some studies have shown that coconut oil tends to raise HDL cholesterol more than many other types of fat.
In addition, some studies have shown that coconut oil may improve the ratio of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol to HDL cholesterol. Improving this ratio reduces heart disease risk (20, 21, 22).
One study examined the health effects of coconut oil consumption in 40 females with excess abdominal fat. The researchers found that those who took coconut oil daily had increased HDL cholesterol and a lower LDL-to-HDL ratio.
In contrast, the group who took soybean oil daily had a decrease in HDL cholesterol and an increase in the LDL-to-HDL ratio (21).
However, more recent reviews suggest that the research into coconut oil and cholesterol is of poor quality, is not conclusive, and often reports that coconut oil can raise the levels of LDL cholesterol. Therefore, more research is needed (23, 24).
Most studies have found that these health benefits occur at a dosage of about 2 tbsp (30 ml) of coconut oil per day. It is best to incorporate this into cooking rather than eating spoonfuls of coconut oil on their own.
Bottom line: Consuming 2 tbsp (30 ml) of coconut oil per day may help increase HDL cholesterol levels. Coconut oil is available to purchase online. That said, the current research is inconclusive.
Smoking increases the risk of many health problems, including heart disease and lung cancer.
In a 1-year study of more than 1,500 people, those who quit smoking had twice the increase in HDL as those who resumed smoking within the year. The number of large HDL particles also increased, which further reduced heart disease risk (26).
When it comes to the effect of nicotine replacement patches on HDL levels, research results have been mixed.
For example, one study found that nicotine replacement therapy led to higher HDL cholesterol. However, other research suggests that people who use nicotine patches likely will not see increases in HDL levels until after replacement therapy ends (28, 29).
Bottom line: Quitting smoking can increase HDL levels, improve HDL function, and help protect heart health.
When people with overweight or obesity lose weight, their HDL cholesterol levels usually increase.
What’s more, this benefit seems to occur whether weight loss is from a calorie-reduced diet, carb restriction, intermittent fasting, weight loss surgery, or a combination of diet and exercise (13, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35).
One study examined HDL levels in more than 3,000 Japanese adults with overweight or obesity, all of whom followed a lifestyle modification program for 1 year.
In another study, when people with obesity and type 2 diabetes consumed calorie-restricted diets that provided 20–30% of calories from protein, they had significant increases in HDL cholesterol levels (35).
The key to achieving and maintaining healthy HDL cholesterol levels is choosing the type of diet that makes it easiest for the individual to lose weight and keep it off.
Bottom line: Research shows that several methods of weight loss can increase HDL cholesterol levels in people with overweight or obesity.
Consuming purple fruits and vegetables is a delicious way to potentially increase HDL cholesterol.
Purple produce contains antioxidants known as anthocyanins.
In a 24-week study of 58 people with diabetes, those who took an anthocyanin supplement twice per day had a 19.4% increase in HDL cholesterol, on average, along with other improvements in heart health markers (38).
In another study, when people with cholesterol-related issues took anthocyanin extract for 12 weeks, their HDL cholesterol levels increased by 13.7% (39).
Although these studies used extracts instead of foods, several fruits and vegetables are very high in anthocyanins. These include:
- red cabbage
- black raspberries
Bottom line: Consuming fruits and vegetables rich in anthocyanins may help increase HDL cholesterol levels.
In a study of 33 people with heart disease, participants who consumed fatty fish four times per week for 8 weeks had an increase in HDL cholesterol levels. The particle size of their HDL also increased (44).
However, other studies found no increase in HDL cholesterol in response to increased fish or omega-3 supplement intake (40).
Some types of fatty fish that may help raise HDL cholesterol include:
Bottom line: Eating fatty fish several times per week may help increase HDL cholesterol levels and provide other benefits to heart health.
There are two types of trans fats. One kind occurs naturally in animal products, including full fat dairy.
In contrast, manufacturers create artificial trans fats, which are present in margarines and processed foods, by adding hydrogen to unsaturated vegetable and seed oils. These fats are also known as industrial trans fats or partially hydrogenated fats.
In addition to increasing inflammation and contributing to several health concerns, these artificial trans fats may lower HDL cholesterol levels.
To protect heart health and keep HDL cholesterol within the healthful range, it is best to avoid artificial trans fats altogether.
Bottom line: Research suggests that artificial trans fats can lower HDL levels and increase inflammation, compared with other fats.
Although HDL cholesterol levels are partly determined by genetics, there are many things a person can do to naturally increase their levels.
This includes eating healthful fats, such as olive oil, coconut oil, and fatty fish, and avoiding harmful trans fats. Getting regular exercise, quitting smoking, and eating antioxidant-rich foods are also effective for increasing HDL cholesterol.
The habits and practices that raise HDL cholesterol often provide other health benefits, and they are key components of a healthful lifestyle.