There are many misconceptions about the differences between “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol and the biggest one may be that there should be a certain amount of “good” cholesterol in the foods we eat. Good cholesterol is not the cholesterol we eat in food, but instead it is the high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol that circulates in our bloodstream. High-density lipoprotein cholesterol is one of the fats measured in a lipid panel blood test, and the higher your HDL number, the lower your risk of developing heart disease is. Despite the fact that it is usually the “bad” cholesterol that is mentioned in the news most often, it is the good cholesterol that will probably be the next big weapon in the fight against heart disease.
Good high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol makes up about 20% to 30% of your total blood cholesterol, and helps prevent the accumulation of fatty plaque deposits in the walls of the coronary arteries. Many studies that have examined heart attacks or deaths from heart disease have found that even a slight five-point drop in good HDL cholesterol is linked to a 25% increase in the risk of developing heart disease. Researchers have also learned that while a person’s cholesterol levels are affected by genetics to a degree, women usually enjoy higher HDL cholesterol levels than men. Levels of HDL cholesterol below 40 mg/dL are considered too low by most medical professionals, and about one third of men and one fifth of women in the U.S. today are thought to have HDL levels below 40 mg/dL.
Several new drugs that are currently being tested to boost the levels of HDL in the bloodstream will become much more important in heart disease prevention if they prove effective. Increasing the levels of good HDL could potentially reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes by as much as 90% and save millions of lives in the process. It is known that HDL cholesterol helps reduce the risk of heart disease by protecting against the formation of plaques in the artery walls. Now, recent studies indicate that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of HDL might actually accelerate the removal of cholesterol from cells found in plaques, or lesions, in the arteries as well.
The importance of maintaining adequate levels of good HDL in the blood have led to research that now shows changes in diet and lifestyle can also help increase those levels. Highlighting the effects of high-antioxidant fruits and vegetables, a recent study from the UK found that drinking three cups of orange juice a day increased good HDL levels by as much as 21% in just three weeks. Because being overweight contributes to low HDL cholesterol levels, and is one of the main causes of low HDL, losing excess weight and maintaining proper weight are also critical factors in maintaining your overall health.
When it comes to your diet, one good thing to do is to replace the saturated fats with monounsaturated fats to help reduce your levels of "bad" cholesterol and increase the levels of "good" cholesterol at the same time.
Of course, maintaining your proper weight and good cholesterol levels will be a bit easier if you don’t smoke, drink alcohol only in moderation and get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. All are practices that can help you keep the bad cholesterol at bay while lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease too.