One of the most common topics overheard from health conscious people is, “I don’t eat that food because it will increase my cholesterol.” Next time you hear this statement, consider replying with, “You know certain cholesterol is good for you, right?”
This usually surprises people, but it’s true! There’s one type of cholesterol that we should try to increase for improved heart health. Food labels don’t state what type of cholesterol you’re eating, so read on to find out if you’re taking in the good or bad kind of cholesterol.
Fat 101: What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a lipid (organic compound not able to be dissolved in water) produced naturally in our bodies and found in foods. Cholesterol is a component of lipoproteins, or spherical molecules produced by the liver and small intestine. Lipoproteins contain an inner core of triglycerides (molecules that contain two saturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acid) and an outer shell of proteins, other lipids, and cholesterol. Two major lipoproteins are low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) or “bad cholesterol” and high density lipoproteins (HDLs) or “good cholesterol.” Really, these should be called “good lipos” and “bad lipos” since they contain more than just cholesterol.
According to Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, LDLs contain the following:
- 5 percent triglycerides
- 20 percent phospholipids (lipids that contain phosphorus)
- 25 percent proteins
- 50 percent cholesterol
- 5-10 percent triglycerides
- 20 percent cholesterol
- 30 percent phospholipids
- 40-45 percent proteins
Before we get into how to increase good cholesterol, let’s look at how “bad” cholesterol got its reputation.
LDL Cholesterol: Why So Bad?
LDLs transport cholesterol from the liver to the body’s cells for use in cell membrane repair and the production of hormones and bile salts. However, excessive amounts of LDL promote atherosclerosis, a progressive disease where plaque develops in the walls of large and medium sized arteries. This happens because LDLs deposit cholesterol in and around smooth muscle fibers in arteries, forming fatty plaques (hence the term bad).
However, fatty foods that don’t have any cholesterol can still increase LDL cholesterol. Specifically, when saturated fat is digested by cells in the liver, it uses some of the breakdown products to form cholesterol. For this reason, nutrition experts provide recommendations for blood cholesterol levels. These can be determined by having your doctor do a lipid profile test. Cholesterol is measured in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL).
“Generally, it is recommended that healthy adults without any underlying cardiovascular disease or significant family history have total cholesterol under 200, LDL under 100, HDL over 50 for men and over 40 for women,” says Angela Goscilo, MS, RD, CDN. “In terms of decreasing LDL cholesterol, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and pulses (beans, chickpeas, lentils, and split peas) can help to naturally lower your levels.”
Now, let’s dive into the world of HDLs, the good cholesterol.
HDL Cholesterol: Bump It Up
When you get blood results back from the doctor after a routine screening, you’ll see a total cholesterol (TC) reading. The higher this number, the greater your risk of heart disease. The ratio of TC to HDL cholesterol gives a number to the risk. For example, if someone has a TC level of 200 and an HDL level of 50, they would have a risk ratio of four. TC/HDL ratios above five are considered high for men while 4.5+ is considered a risk for women, according to a Vascular Health and Risk Management review.
“HDL works to lower the overall amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream,” says Goscilo. “HDL is responsible for carrying cholesterol back to the liver where it is further processed by the body or eliminated.”
Goscilo says that incorporating more heart healthy fats into your diet is one way to improve your overall cholesterol profile. “Heart healthy fats, such as olive oil, walnuts, and avocados, have been shown to increase HDL,” Goscilo adds.
“In addition, some supplements have been shown to improve cholesterol levels in combination with a healthy lifestyle. For instance, research supports the use of products like Benecol, that contain plant stanols or plant sterols to improve overall cholesterol levels,” she says.
Foods to Bump Up Your HDLs
Since HDLs contain nearly 50 percent proteins, it makes sense that a 2015 Journal of Nutrition study found that Americans who eat between 1.0-1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight may have a lower risk of developing heart disease. People who eat protein above the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) have higher HDL levels, according to the research. Another nutritional item that can boost HDL is coconut oil. Daily consumption of 30mL of virgin coconut oil for eight weeks significantly increased HDL in healthy people during an Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine study.
Many foods are studied for their HDL boosting potential in people that already have a pre-existing medical condition. Here are two examples:
- Cashews: A 2018 Journal of Nutrition study found that South Asian Indians with diabetes increased their HDL and lowered blood pressure by eating 30 grams of cashews per day for 12 weeks.
- Almonds: Another study in the Journal of Nutrition had coronary artery disease patients with low HDL eat 10 grams of almonds daily for 12 weeks. The result was HDL levels that compared to the control group.
Don’t Forget to Exercise
In healthy people, exercise is key for maintaining optimal cholesterol levels. “Research suggests that both resistance training, such as lifting weights, as well as cardiovascular exercise, can lower total cholesterol and LDL,” says Goscilo. “Aerobic exercise can increase HDL levels.”
Following an Aaptiv program that contains both strength and cardio elements is a surefire way to feel your best. Cross-train to 5K, Intro to Weight Loss, and Total Body Training are all great options for improving athletic performance and heart health.