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Not all cholesterol is bad. In fact, your body requires both types of cholesterol: low-density lipoproteins (LDL), known as "bad" cholesterol, and high-density lipoproteins (HDL), known as "good" cholesterol. The risk for heart disease rises when LDL levels get too high or when HDL levels get too low.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), although HDL is still widely studied, some experts say having high HDL helps slow down arterial buildup by carrying the bad cholesterol to the liver for disposal.
HDL levels lower than 40 mg/dl for men and 50 mg/dl for women increase the risk of heart disease. The AHA recommends that both men and women aim for a HDL cholesterol level at 60 mg/dl or higher to reduce risk.
We've got the answers to help you get there.
Aerobic exercise for 120 minutes a week, such as a brisk walk, can increase your HDL cholesterol by 5 percent within a couple months, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you're just getting started or getting back on track, build stamina by progressing from five-, 10-, and 15-minute walks or workouts a day to 30 minutes a day.
The key to your exercise success is increasing your heart rate. Find a chart on target heart rates at the Web site for the American Heart Association.
Talk to your doctor if you experience trouble breathing, dizziness, chest pain, or nausea during or after exercise. Always consult with your doctor before starting or changing a fitness plan.
What you eat can directly affect your HDL cholesterol, especially "good" and "bad" fat intake.
Eating a meal high in saturated fat can lower HDL benefits, such as increasing arterial inflammation within as little as six hours and inhibiting proper artery dilation within three hours, according to a 2006 study by the Cleveland Clinic. Saturated fats are derived from animal products, such as beef, lamb, pork, milk, cheese, and cream, and plant oils including coconut and palm oils.
The AHA recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 7 percent of total daily calories and trans fat to less than 1 percent. Cutting your saturated fat intake can improve HDL benefits.
4 Ways to Reduce Saturated Fat in Your Diet:
-- Replace steak or pork chops with salmon or trout for a main course.
-- Substitute olive oil for butter for cooking or to add flavor.
-- Try appetizers with olives and avocados instead of cheese.
-- Make the switch from 2 percent milk to nonfat milk.
Checking food labels is a great tool to lower your trans fat intake, but be sure to look closely at the ingredients -- labels are not required to list trans fat if the total is less than 0.5 grams. If the ingredients include shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, or hydrogenated vegetable oil, the food has trans fat.
Hydrogenation changes liquid vegetable oils into solid fats, which turns unsaturated fat into a trans fat. This process not only raises LDL cholesterol, it also decreases HDL, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Top trans fat offenders:
-- Cakes and pastries: According to the FDA, 40 percent of adult Americans' trans fat intake comes from cakes, cookies, crackers, pies, and bread. Skip the store-bought varieties and look for more healthful recipes you can make at home.
-- French fries: The good news is most of the major fast food chains have switched to trans-fat-free oils, including Wendy's, Burger King, and McDonald's. Some store-bought varieties in the frozen section still have trans fat.
-- Doughnuts: Although chains like Dunkin' Donuts, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, and Tim Hortons have removed trans fat from their products, there are still traces (less than 0.5 grams), according to Consumer Reports. Other brands may still have trans fat, so look at ingredient lists and consider the saturated fat content as well.
-- Margarine and shortening: Choose a reduced-fat margarine or more healthful vegetable oil-based spreads. For shortening, find recipes that offer substitutions, such as applesauce, yogurt, or pureed prunes.
"Healthy" and "fat" rarely go together. But monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help your overall cholesterol and can also help decrease inflammation of the arteries, which is associated with a higher HDL. Although these fats are considered healthful, moderation is the key because of their high calorie count.
Monounsaturated fats are mostly plant-based and include olive oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil, canola oil, nuts, peanut butter, olives, and avocados. These good fats are also high in vitamin E, an antioxidant.
Try these great recipes that contain monounsaturated fat:
Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish, such as salmon, tuna, and sardines. Like monounsaturated fats, omega-3s can have a positive effect on HDL.
If you want omega-3 benefits without the fish, check out these products:
-- Orange juice fortified with omega-3s
-- Milk fortified with omega-3s
-- Yogurt fortified with omega-3s
-- Vegetable oil spreads fortified with omega-3s
-- Soy products, such as tofu or soy milk
-- Fish oil supplements
Try these great recipes that contain omega-3s:
Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, naturally occurs in foods such as mushrooms, tuna, and chicken breast. Studies have shown that high doses of niacin can raise HDL levels by 15-35 percent. These HDL-boosting effects cannot be attained by food alone but require a prescription or supplement. It is usually recommended for people with high LDL and low HDL levels who also take statins.
Note: Niacin at high doses can cause side effects, such as flushing, and harmful drug interactions. Do not take niacin without talking to your doctor.
If you enjoy an evening aperitif or a glass of wine with dinner, you are actually helping lower your bad cholesterol because alcohol in moderation has been found to increase HDL levels. Moderation is considered one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
It's important to note that this recommendation is for people who already drink alcohol. Studies done on the relationship between alcohol and increased HDL are not substantial enough for an endorsement to start drinking, according to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
Quitting smoking has so many benefits, especially when it comes to cholesterol and heart-healthy living. By not smoking, you can boost your HDL cholesterol as much as 15-20 percent, according to the June 2008 issue of Harvard Women's Health Watch. It's tough to quit, but with a support system in place to help you reach your goal, you can do it -- starting right now.
Tips to quit:
-- Write down why you want to quit smoking.
-- Set a date and prepare to stop smoking on that day.
-- Figure out what triggers you during the day to smoke.
-- Change your daily routine to avoid your smoking triggers.
-- Get your family and friends involved -- they can be there for you to talk, go for a walk, or even quit with you.
-- Stay positive and keep reaching toward your goal!