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7 Heart-Healthy Diet & Lifestyle habits to Raise your Good Cholesterol

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

February is the month for matters of the heart! While some consider love and relationships with the celebration of Valentine’s Day worldwide, millions around the nation celebrate February as #AmericanHeartMonth, a time set aside for advocacy, education, and action in support of heart health.

As the organ responsible for pumping blood (and all the oxygen, nutrients, hormones, and other essential substances it contains) throughout the body, the heart is at the center of your overall health. American Heart Month is not only about the heart but the entire cardiovascular system, including the veins and arteries needed to carry blood to every cell that needs it. It’s also important to recognize the health of the blood itself and several conditions (like high blood pressure, elevated blood fats, high blood sugar, and anemia) that can lead to serious health complications.

Women are of unique importance when it comes to improving cardiovascular health.

According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the #1 killer of women in America, accounting for 1 in 3 of all deaths each year. That’s more than all forms of cancer combined. Black women are disproportionately affected by cardiovascular disease (CVD) and many of the conditions that increase CVD risk. Cardiovascular diseases kill more than 50,000 Black women annually with stroke being the leading cause of death. Though there are many factors involved in the overall cardiovascular health of women, most cardiovascular diseases can be prevented with healthy diet and lifestyle habits.

Cholesterol is one of the most important factors involved in heart health. Cholesterol is a type of fat in the blood that is essential for the development of new cells, hormones, and certain vitamins like vitamin D. It exists in two forms in the body HDL-C (“good cholesterol”) and LDL-C (“bad cholesterol”). Like most things, too much cholesterol can be serious trouble for the body. While HDL-C works to absorb cholesterol in the blood and carry it to the liver for breakdown and processing (reverse cholesterol transport), too much LDL-C can build up in the arteries making them narrow, stiff, and thick (atherosclerosis). This change in the arteries can lead to stroke, heart disease, and other cardiovascular diseases.

The good news is that there are many diet and lifestyle habits you can start right now to increase your good cholesterol and support your overall heart health. Need inspiration? Give these 7 tips a try!

1. Switch to Plant-Based Protein

Try whole food plant-based protein like nuts, seeds, tofu, and soy milk as an alternative to animal proteins like meat and dairy. Proteins from animals contain saturated fats (which are solid at room temperature) are known to increase LDL-C and CVD risk. Studies of soy and non-soy legume consumption suggest eating more soy can increase HDL-C, decrease LDL-C, and decrease triglycerides, another type of fat in the blood linked to CVD. These plant fats are primarily comprised of unsaturated fats that are liquid at room temperature.

2. Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods

These processed foods, including, baked goods, frozen meals, packaged foods, fried foods, and take out often contain trans fats that have been shown to increase bad cholesterol. Choose a plant-forward diet containing whole, organic foods (when possible) to reduce your consumption of trans fats and support your heart health. Team up with a registered dietitian who can help you maneuver the grocery store and help you identify these fats and offer substitutions that fits your budget and health goals.

3. Cook with Healthy Fats

Not all fats are made equal! Certain unsaturated fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids found in plant foods (ALA) and seafood (DHA and EPA), have been shown to support cardiovascular health by increasing good cholesterol and decreasing bad cholesterol. On top of filling your plate with nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fish, aim to cook/prepare foods with healthy fats such as avocado, Grapeseed and olive oil (best used after cooking). Avoid cooking with saturated fats such as lard and shortening, which are solid at room temperature and is a culprit for clogging arteries.

4. Move Your Body

You probably know of the many benefits of exercise, including weight management, improved mood and energy levels, quality sleep, and balanced hormones. Another benefit, according to a growing body of research, is an increase in good cholesterol. Get moving in whatever way brings you joy and works for your lifestyle. Switch it up throughout the week with gentle movement like Pilates, long walks, and cleaning or pump up the intensity with strength training with HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), and running. Studies show that exercise may increase the beneficial effects of good nutrition on HDL-C levels.

5. Stress Less

Did you know that psychological stress may increase your bad cholesterol? A recent study suggests stress is a risk factor for dyslipidemia, the imbalance of fats in the blood. Results of this study showed increased LDL cholesterol, increased triglycerides, and decreased HDL cholesterol in participants experiencing mild stress. This study also found that certain lifestyle factors like increased physical activity may protect individuals from the negative effects of stress and moderate their risk of dyslipidemia. Though it may be difficult to avoid the stress of life, you can change your psychological and physical reaction to it with stress relieving activities like meditation, deep breathing, and exercise.

6. Say No to Smoking

There are many reasons to quit smoking, an activity that is extremely harmful to the body and increases one’s risk for COPD, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, cancer and more. A recent study adds to the many benefits of a non-smoking lifestyle by suggesting it can increase HDL cholesterol levels in the blood. The results suggest this increase in good cholesterol can occur rapidly after quitting, in less than three weeks!

7. Work with Your Physician and Your Registered Dietitian

One of the best ways to keep your cholesterol in check is by scheduling regular physical exams with your physician. In addition to monitoring the condition of your cardiovascular system, your doctor can monitor your cholesterol levels and offer immediate intervention to help prevent serious medical concerns. Your dietitian can spend quality time with you to help you navigate grocery shopping for key heart health nutrients, teach you budget friendly and healthy swaps, show you how to cook nutritious balanced meals, help you decode tricky food label lingo and understand nutrition facts and ingredient list, interpret difficult food and nutrition research and help you understand the science of food so you know what foods assist to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. Most importantly, a registered dietitian can improve the overall quality of your life by providing a personalized road map that fits YOUR needs, culture, and health goals.

Blog Medically reviewed by Sue-Ellen Anderson-Haynes, MS, RDN, CDCES, LDN, NASM-CPT, Women's Health Dietitian, Wellness Practitioner, Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist, Women's Fitness Specialist Certified Personal Trainer, & Founder - 360Girls&Women®