Foods That Raise HDL Cholesterol

by Melanie Thomassian Health Professional

With so much hype about how "bad" LDL cholesterol is, you may have completely overlooked HDL cholesterol. However, HDL cholesterol plays a very important role in your heart health.

In fact, research suggests that a five-point reduction in HDL cholesterol levels, is linked to a 25% increase in heart disease risk.

So, how does HDL work in the body? Here are a few of the suggested benefits:

  • HDL removes cholesterol from your bloodstream, and carries it back to the liver.

  • HDL protects against the formation of plaque in the artery walls.

  • HDL promotes the removal of cholesterol from cells found in abnormal tissues in the arteries.

  • The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of HDL can inhibit atherogenesis.

Increasing Your HDL Cholesterol Levels

There are a number of changes you can make in your diet and lifestyle, which can be very effective for raising HDL cholesterol.

Healthy Fats

Firstly, limiting your intake of saturated and trans fats will have a beneficial effect on your HDL cholesterol.
In particular, it is vitally important that your daily trans fat intake is zero. Hydrogenated fats (trans fats) actually reduce HDL cholesterol, which is bad news.

So, you need to avoid overly processed foods, like cookies and donuts, and also fries and margarines, as these are some of the main sources of trans fats in the diet. You should also read food labels carefully, and look out for healthier fat sources.

Replace these unhealthy fats with monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids. Foods to add to your regular consumption include, olive oil, nuts, avocado, natural nut butter, tuna, salmon, sardines, and flaxseed.

Dark Chocolate

Research suggests that polyphenol-rich, high-cocoa chocolate (70 percent cocoa or more) increases HDL cholesterol. In one study, participants ate 45 grams of chocolate per day, and researchers noted a significant increase in their HDL levels.

If you are adding dark chocolate to your diet, do remember that it is calorie-rich, so therefore you must compensate elsewhere, to avoid overeating. And, don't forget that the chocolate must be high-cocoa to be beneficial.

Vitamin D and Calcium

A study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that when subjects were supplemented with vitamin D and calcium (600 mg calcium, and 200 IU vitamin D), HDL cholesterol increased, along with other beneficial changes to plasma lipid and lipoprotein concentrations.

You can get calcium from dairy foods, like milk and yogurt, but also from foods like leafy green vegetables, fish (with bones), fortified juices, legumes, dried figs and apricots.

Exposing your skin to sunlight for a short period of time, without sunscreen, is the best way to get your bodies vitamin D levels up to a healthy level. There are also some foods which contain vitamin D, including eggs, fortified milk, salmon, tuna, and fish oils.


Alcohol also plays a role in increasing HDL levels. But, if you do not drink already, do not start, as there other risks associated with consuming alcohol on a regular basis. If you do drink alcohol, do not exceed more than 1-2 drinks per day.

Niacin (vitamin B3)

A study, published in the American Journal of Cardiology, found that niacin increased HDL cholesterol by up to 30 percent. Food sources of niacin include mushrooms, nuts, legumes, chicken, beef, tuna, trout, mackerel, eggs, and sea vegetables.

If you have low HDL levels you may benefit from taking 500 milligrams of niacin each day in supplement form, building up to 1,000 milligrams a day. Please check with your doctor first, though.

Don't forget that taking regular exercise is also very important for boosting your HDL cholesterol levels. As is losing weight, if you are overweight or obese. And, stopping smoking can also increase your HDL numbers somewhat.

Melanie Thomassian
Meet Our Writer
Melanie Thomassian

Melanie is a dietitian and writer. She wrote for HeatlhCentral as a health professional for Food & Nutrition and Heart Health.